Sound Off: Role of the city in development is misunderstood

There have been several new developments over the past few months that have sparked strong opinions within our community. One need only look at the string of comments on social media regarding the Sonic drive-in and proposed Hilton downtown to get a small glimpse into how divisive these new businesses can be. I listen and engage in conversations with people whose views range from “This is terrible, the town is nothing like when I was growing up” to “A hotel downtown has the potential to completely revitalize that area” and everything in between. I’m not here to tell anyone how to feel, as both opinions are valid. Instead, I’d like to share a little bit about the role of the city (and council) when it comes to these new businesses.

I have noticed that some individuals are under the impression the “City” is building a hotel. These sentiments can be reflected in statements I’ve read such as “Why doesn’t the city put it somewhere else” or “The city shouldn’t be building a hotel; they should be putting in affordable housing.” To be clear, the city is NOT building a hotel. Nor did the city council “approve” a Hilton (or a Sonic). These are being built by private individuals or corporations who decided to take on the risk of placing a location here.

The city sets zoning regulations on what types of businesses/housing units can be built and where. We do not dictate which businesses operate within those guidelines. The parcel where the Sonic will be located is zoned to allow a restaurant. It is not for the city to say, “We have too many burger places, let’s deny this one.”

The city also establishes minimum requirements for property layouts. For example, we have minimum setbacks for buildings, or required sprinklers for others. This is both for aesthetics as well as safety. Additionally, the city collects impact fees to mitigate the impact of new businesses on the area. If a new business has the potential to worsen traffic in that area, it is not unreasonable for some of those impact fees to be used to find ways to alleviate the issue.

Assuming a new business applies to operate in a location where zoning permits it, pays its fees, and adheres to the required minimum layouts, the business can proceed without any vote from the city council. For example, Sonic never went through the city council because there was nothing that triggered council involvement. If there is some request for changes of zoning or ordinances, that may go through council however these sorts of things are a rarity.

With the state asking for the City of Oak Harbor to increase by 5,500 housing units over the next couple of decades (via the Growth Management Act), the growth is likely to continue. We cannot just stop development, but we can help to put some guard rails in as to what that development could look like.

Over the next year, the city will be working on a both the Comprehensive plan and a visioning plan with public involvement to shape the future of our town. As we go through this process, I encourage everyone who has an interest to be involved. Social media platforms like Facebook are a good starting point for making your opinions known. However, participating in more “official” channels and providing direct input is the only way we, as a city, can create a vision and future that reflects the desires of our residents.

Bryan Stucky is a member of the Oak Harbor City Council and a local businessperson.