On the floor of the council chamber sat 1,510 Styrofoam cubes. Ten were red, 1500 were white. Throughout public comment, the chain of squares sat in front of the council.
On Monday night, the Gig Harbor City Council voted to approve three of four amendments to the zoning ordinance for the Waterfront Commercial section downtown. The chains of cubes — white representing community members opposing, red representing support — was made by Jeni Woock, of the Citizens for the Preservation of the Downtown Waterfront to represent the overruling of the “will of the people.” She gathered the numbers from a Freedom of Information request that contained emails to councilmembers.
The ordinance was a controversial topic in the city. Before the vote was even cast, members of the council took time to explain how the would vote. It wasn’t a time to petition the council, but to listen to the reasoning of the members. A full chamber was alive with applause and whispers, depending on the topic. Many councilmembers also brought up the tone of discourse used in the lead up to the meeting, something councilwoman Jill Guernsey said was “uncalled for, uncivil and unprofessional.”
Similarly, councilman Paul Kadzik addressed rumors that there were back door deals with big developers already in place before the ordinance was brought to vote.
“There’s been no nefarious people coming and lining the city’s pockets,” he said. Kadzik gave a presentation to argue that the fourth amendment, regarding waterfront homes, be removed. It was not part of the final decision.
The ordinance was not passed unanimously. Only councilman Ken Malich voted no, stating that he saw his role as a voice for the opposition who had made their preference for downtown clear.
“Sometimes it feels awful lonely up here when you’re the only one sharing that opinion,” he said, to cheers from the crowd.
He pointed to the rapid development and arrival of chain stores in Uptown and Gig Harbor North as the reason for downtown’s struggles, not the current zoning rules.
The ordinance sprung up at the request of the planning commission. Under the new ordinance, a building with a flat roof can reach 27 feet. Effectively, it allows two-story buildings. Before the ordinance, only buildings with peaked roofs could reach that height.
The zoning applies to the WC, or Waterfront Commercial, district. The area is the corner of Pioneer and Harborview Drive, running along the water side from Skansie Brothers Park to the Green Turtle Restaurant. The amendment related to the height of waterfront homes, sometimes known as “houses in the hole,” is the one that was dropped.
Hundreds of petition signatures and efforts by Woock brought public discussion to the issue. Mainly, those opposed to the ordinance don’t want the harbor to become a corridor. They worry taller buildings will mean a loss of views. The zoning might draw big developers to Harborview Drive, changing the character of the area, Woock has said. Her other issue is that there was not enough notice of the potential change given to the public when it first came up in July.
“If this had been brought up in the visioning meeting, we wouldn’t be here tonight,” she said after the meeting. “I really believe that.”
But councilman Tim Payne felt that more initiative needed to be taken on the part of the public to really discuss the issue with councilmembers. While Payne hasn’t appreciated the tone, he’s appreciated every email and wants to listen. However, he claimed, only two people met with him to talk. His characterization of the discourse was volatile, not engaged. He explained his vote for yes, like the other members of council. His belief is that it’s not restrictions that will hurt downtown, it’s coddling. It needs to open up in order to thrive.
In the end, after discussion, the vote was yes. Afterward, the opposition wasn’t over as several people came forward to make public comment. Woock went first, with the chains she spent all day Saturday making. Charlotte Gerlof reminded the council that they are elected officials, and should be careful not to misrepresent the public. She said she “didn’t like to be patronized” and she has been mindful not to patronize the council. What she wanted was more communication about what exactly the council believes will happen, for example, what businesses they want to see in downtown.
Afterward, Michael Mordue said that he feels the land on the water, despite best intentions, won’t be filled by small businesses and houses, but large, expensive homes and big business. He thinks it needs more study, because there are points on both side, but now change is inevitable.
“Ultimately, the land will be sold to the highest bidder,” he said.
Reporter Karen Miller can be reached at 253-358-4155 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org