A proposal to remove the Oak Harbor City Council from quasi-judicial decisions about development proposals is a good idea and should move forward expeditiously.
The change would take politics out of a process that should be strictly objective. The current procedure puts politicians into the position of making legal interpretations of code for the most complicated development permits.
The council would be replaced by a hearing examiner, who is a land-use attorney independent of city departments, boards and commissions. A hearing examiner provides an efficient and effective administrative adjudicatory system, which should also save developers’ time.
Oak Harbor is somewhat of a rarity in clinging to the outdated process of allowing elected officials to make such legal determinations.
Development Director Steve Powers diplomatically said transferring the responsibilities to a hearing examiner would remove the emotions from decision making.
Council members are supposed to set policy and the budget, not also act as judge and jury.
The issue was brought up after the council’s quasi-judicial hearing over permits for a low-income housing development proposed for a downtown property. The controversial proposal was rife with politics and emotions because many people felt it was the wrong place for the project, especially since it included very limited retail space.
The hearing examiner and city staff concluded that the proposal did follow city code and that the permits must be approved. The council ultimately agreed, but three of the four council members felt they were better judges of the law and made arguments that, in at least one case, strayed into the nonsensical and contradictory.
That’s not a good scene when it comes to protecting the city from a legal challenge, which there has been in this case. The Oak Harbor Main Street Association filed a land-use petition that challenges the legal conclusions that led the council to approve the development.
After the hearing, the council placed a partial moratorium on downtown development until after the regulations are revisited.
Hopefully, city leaders will soon agree upon code changes that reflect the community’s vision for Pioneer Way.