City council to consider Millville changes; citizens group opposed

Government: Houses could be built closer to sidewalk in downtown district

of the GatewayJanuary 8, 2014 

The Gig Harbor City Council will hear about proposed changes to the waterfront Millville district at its meeting on Monday.

No action will take place until at least the council’s Jan. 23 meeting.

The changes originally were part of a decision last fall, and that controversy is bubbling over.

Gig Harbor resident Jeni Woock plans to present a petition during the public comment period against changes to waterfront zoning that she started during the last hubbub about zoning heights.

The new ordinance would impact residential Millville, which runs from Pleasurecraft Marina to Eddon Boat Park. It doesn’t change commercial buildings and is only applicable to residences on the waterfront side of Harborview Drive.

The homes that likely will be governed by the new rules are tear-downs, remodels and new structures on vacant lots, city planner Jennifer Kester said.

The rules for setbacks are in the city code under Title 17. Any time an ordinance is set, it changes Title 17, Kester said. But many things don’t change, like density, building size, side setbacks and basic unit provisions.

Woock’s group, the Citizens for the Preservation of the Downtown Gig Harbor Waterfront, has garnered 1,600 signatures.

There’s a similar petition only related to Millville. Woock said she’s been hitting the streets for that one. She’s gathered 40 signatures and insists she’s not politicking.

“I really try not to sway people,” she said. “Either people want it or they don’t.”

Woock is against any new rules because she feels the new building heights would obstruct views of the water. It also would weaken the preservation of the waterfront, she said.

Woock has met with Kester, who is careful to note that, while she believes in the public process, she doesn’t support petitions.

Until the Shoreline Master Plan update, Gig Harbor had a zero-foot setback from bulkheads. The ordinance aims to give space to property owners, Kester said.

The master plan update moved the waterside setback from zero to 35 feet. Kester said that would allow buildings to be closer to property lines, meaning the master plan update takes away 27 feet of building space as opposed to 35 feet.

“You’re giving (property owners) back eight more feet,” she said.

Kester said houses won’t be taller, but the height will be perceived as taller. Building height is currently set at 18 feet, but the ordinance would change the measurement. Instead of being measured from the front setback, it would be measured from the property line, usually on or near the sidewalk, Kester said.

There are still rules about distance between buildings and side yards that create view corridors, she said, so there will not be an obstruction of views.

Woock said council member Paul Kadzik favors the amendment, and she claims he’s made a decision before he’s heard public input.

Kadzik rebuffed that. He said he favors the amendment but is open to what the public has to say.

“Half of the time, I go to city council thinking I’ll vote one way and vote the other,” he said.

Kadzik does have a dog in the fight — he’s a Millville resident.

“Any changes that would happen in Millville would affect me,” he said. “I’m perfectly comfortable with the changes.”

Woock is not optimistic that the council supporters will change their minds.

“It is what it is,” she said. “The city is going to pass this.”

There is an opponent, however. Council member Ken Malich doesn’t think a sweeping ordinance is the right move for Millville. He thinks property owners who are struggling with the new rules and wanting to rebuild should apply for a variance.

This move isn’t a proportional reaction, Malich said. Instead, he said it’s changing too much to appease one homeowner. Variances would prevent big changes to the area, he said.

“This would be an easy way to address it, rather than changing the entire law,” Malich said.

Woock hopes the council will consider the will of the people, and she said she’s found precedent: A quote from Mayor Jill Guernsey during a Downtown Visioning and Planning Committee on April 25, 2012. During a conversation, Guernsey replied to a statement about citizen displeasure.

“What I was doing was finishing out his sentence,” Guernsey said. “She misinterprets who’s speaking, who he works for, and she may also misunderstand what I was saying ... I suspect that’s the case.”

The conversation was with David Boe, an architect who is not a city planning staff member, as Woock states in her flier.

“The feeling has been, if the immediate neighborhood is not for it ... ” Boe said in the taped meeting, “ ... it doesn’t go any further,” Guernsey replied. “I can appreciate that.”

Instead of edict, it’s a completion of a sentence, Guernsey said. She said she was not setting any type of platform or law. Rather, she was observing the nature of building projects in the community.

Guernsey, a Pierce County land use lawyer, said county law prohibits interference with a project due to unpopularity or citizen disapproval.

“It’s not a popularity contest,” she said. “Under the law, community displeasure is not a basis to deny a project.”

The precedent comes from a Washington Court of Appeals decision in 1990. In Maranatha Mining v. Pierce County, the court ruled in favor of the mining company after a permit for a gravel mine in a general use zone was denied by the county council.

Guernsey did not work on the case, but she said it’s a well-known ruling in local land use.

“Believe me, it stuck,” she said.

In the end, it’s not the singular ordinances that matter, but the codes and comprehensive plan. Guernsey said the council looks at ordinances, such as the one in Millville, with a land-use lens. It’s the comprehensive plan that focuses that lens.

City policies are written to value the waterfront area, and, therefore, the walling up of the harbor that Woock is wary of doesn’t seem likely, Guernsey said, because it wouldn’t protect or make the waterfront viable.

The meeting with time for public comment will be at 5:30 p.m. Monday. Written comments can be sent to the city via email with the subject line “Waterfront Millville Residential Comments” at kesterj@cityofgigharbor.net. Emails must be received by 3 p.m. Jan. 13.

Speakers at the public hearing will be limited to three minutes each.

Reporter Karen Miller can be reached at 259-358-4155 or by email at karen.miller@gateline.com. Follow her on Twitter, @gateway_karen.

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