Oak Harbor council adopts limited moratorium on downtown development

Council members for the city of Oak Harbor adopted a limited moratorium on development in the downtown area following community concerns about a low-income housing project.

The moratorium was crafted, however, so it won’t block a potential project downtown that purports to have equal amounts of retail and residential space.

At the Wednesday workshop, the council unanimously adopted a measure that places a moratorium in the central business district on development with ground-floor residential or any mixed-use project with less than 33 percent retail space.

The six-month moratorium went into effect immediately, but the council has to hold a public hearing on it within 60 days.

The issue was added to the workshop agenda the day before at the request of Councilwoman Beth Munns, who was critical of the Low Income Housing Institute’s downtown project that was approved by council last week in a 4-3 vote.

The moratorium will have no impact on that project.

While the housing is needed, she argued, it is being built in the wrong place and the portion of the project dedicated to retail space was too small.

Munns said the city needs to prevent inappropriate development while city officials look at building and design codes for the area and “get it right.”

“We should have a vision of what our downtown is going to look like and how we want development to grow,” she said, “and apparently we must not because the staff seems to think it’s one way and different council members see it as another way.”

City Administrator Blaine Oborn suggested three options: no moratorium, a full development moratorium or a partial moratorium.

Development Services Director Steve Powers cautioned against the full moratorium, explaining that it could put the kibosh on a project being contemplated on a small property downtown. He said planners had a pre-application meeting with a developer who is proposing a new building with two floors of retail space on the bottom and two floors of residential space above that.

“It would be truly unfortunate to have a moratorium that would prevent them from submitting that application,” he said, noting that the proposal represents the kind of development the council wants to foster.

Powers explained that the Main Street Association proposed a series of design guidelines and land-use rules the planning commission is currently considering and the city has been in the process of a code review.

Councilman Rick Almberg, who had a 40-year career in construction and development, said developers can’t make much money in retail space anymore because of the rise of online shopping and the decline or brick-and-mortar stores.

The key to having a successful downtown in other communities, he said, has been to encourage a walking culture in the area, which means mixing in substantial residential development with the shops and restaurants.

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