Developer contradicts city claims regarding Oak Harbor’s “Road to Nowhere”
— Created January 12, 2022 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
That’s how the project manager for U-Haul Oak Harbor describes the process of trying to get the company’s building plans approved by the City of Oak Harbor.
Terry Wellner appeared before the City Council at its regular meeting Jan. 4 to push back against information presented in two December council meetings regarding the Fakkema Access Road project, for which council members approved an engineering contract extension. (Read our story on page 6 of the Dec. 23-29 issue of Whidbey Weekly.)
The City of Oak Harbor has proposed building a “minimal” road on the east side of several parcels of land along State Route 20 in north Oak Harbor, between Mariner Self Storage on Regatta Drive on the south and Fakkema Road on the north. The city owns four parcels of land at Fakkema and Highway 20, where a stand of Garry Oak trees has been planted and which the city plans to develop into a park in the future.
The project was identified by the city in 2016 and was placed on the Capital Improvement Plan in 2018, with a projected cost of $481 thousand. In December, Whidbey Weekly publisher and planning commission member Eric Marshall questioned council members about why the city was planning to spend nearly a half million dollars on what he called a “road to nowhere” in previous conversations with City Administrator Blaine Oborn. City staff told council members at the Dec. 7 meeting the cost of the project had increased to just over $700 thousand. Additionally, Marshall questioned why the property owner was not being asked to pay for the road.
But according to Wellner, U-Haul was not consulted on the Fakkema Access Road design and said the company has offered to completely pay for better access off Highway 20.
“Early on, we offered to provide 100 percent of the cost to establish a safe right in/right out access off of Highway 20, with speed up lanes, slow down lanes, median barriers, whatever was required,” Wellner told council members during the public comment portion of the meeting. “We also offered to move the entrance a couple hundred feet north, to where it would be a joint access for the city property and U-Haul, again with all of the appropriate slow down, speed up lanes, median barriers, etc.”
At the Dec. 7 City Council meeting, city staff told council members they were not allowed by the Washington State Department of Transportation to access those parcels from Highway 20, despite of an existing access point from a previous business, due to safety issues. However, Wellner said state DOT officials he spoke to seemed surprised to hear that. Whidbey Weekly spoke to Chris Damitio, assistant regional director for the DOT’s Northwest Region Tuesday afternoon. He said in cities, the DOT leaves those decisions with the city.
“In this case, we have encouraged that access not be allowed, but at end of day, it’s assigned to the city,” he said. “Whether it’s up to a city or whether we regulate [a portion of roadway], we are essentially trying to maintain safety and mobility. We agree with the city’s position on this and have shared that with them, but at the end of the day, it is the city’s decision.”
Wellner told Whidbey Weekly by phone the access road planned by the city is inadequate for their needs and said they would still like to work with the city to gain access off Highway 20.
“We have semi-trucks that go in and out with U-boxes (large shipping containers),” he explained. “Folks in the military, and other folks, load them up, U-Haul stores them for a while, then they are shipped through common carrier, so there will be semi-trucks going in and out. The road the city is planning is inadequate.
“It was a surprise to me their [proposed] road is so inadequate,” Wellner continued. “It was like a slap in face. There was no consideration for trucks, no visibility of the site, it couldn’t have been planned worse. We would like safe, right in/right out access, with a median barrier to prevent left turns. We’re even glad to help with the ‘road to nowhere,’ provided they don’t hold it over our heads and prevent us getting State Route 20 access.”
In addition, City staff told the council the at the Dec. 14 meeting that U-Haul would be extending the proposed road south to Case Road as part of the second phase of its development, thereby creating a north-south alternative route drivers could use in the future. Case Road is currently a private road. Wellner told council members U-Haul does not have permission to access Case Road from its property.
“We were coerced into providing the 1200 feet, so we’re paying for 1200 feet of roadway across the east side of Phase Two of our site,” Wellner told the council. “Lanktree Surveying investigated the easements for us on Case Road and found that U-Haul has no right to use Case Road for access. The owners of the properties on Case Road said that we could use that access for emergency only and they were not interested in increased traffic from U-Haul or anybody else.”
In a subsequent email to Whidbey Weekly, Wellner said U-Haul is committed to building the road, but it will be blocked off about 340 feet north of Case Road.
“This was a condition of our obtaining site plan approval for Phase I,” he wrote.
In addition, Wellner told council members issues with the city’s former interim engineer slowed the entire building process down.
“Your part time city engineer at one time, held up our project for years, informing us that his time was more valuable than ours, that he only worked for the city two days a week and he usually talked with his traffic engineer Friday afternoon and if either one of them weren’t available, well, too bad,” he said. “The same engineer withheld site plan approval to us continuously until our traffic study was rewritten to say exactly what he wanted. “
There were several changes in city staff between 2018 and 2021, and the city has confirmed it hired people on an interim basis to fill the city engineer vacancy. Alex Warner was hired as a civil engineer in 2015 and was promoted to the city engineer position in May 2021. Wellner said communication with the city has improved, but much of the planning was already cast in stone before Warner became the city engineer.
Wellner refutes much of what city staff has told city council members, and those who responded to Whidbey Weekly’s request for their reaction to his comments said they think more questions need to be asked.
“There is, of course, two sides to every story,” Councilman Bryan Stucky wrote in an email. “I have no reason to fault the information that Mr. Wellner has provided, but I also need to give the city staff time to work on a presentation that shows the situation from their perspective. A project with a long history like this is likely to have discrepancies and the truth is often somewhere in the middle.
“More important, however, is where do we go from here?” he continued. “If U-Haul is indeed willing to pay for a road and does not require the city to purchase one, why would we proceed to build one? What is the impact on U-Haul’s proposed road regarding safety? If the city parcels are only suitable to be a park and no other businesses will be entering, why is the city’s proposed road still necessary? Could this money be better suited to other road projects? I know city staff is working on questions such as these, and I am looking forward to hearing their answers.”
Wellner, who is himself a contractor for U-Haul, told council members the process has been “excruciating,” citing cost overruns and huge carrying costs on the property.
“This has been particularly difficult,” he said to Whidbey Weekly. “I’ve built many larger facilities in other cities across the country and it’s taken about two years to complete them. We’ve been at this four-and-a-half years and we’ve barely scratched dirt.”
Still, Wellner said U-Haul Oak Harbor wants to be an asset to the community going forward.
“U-Haul wants to be a good participant in the community,” he said. “We want to feel like a part of the community and contribute. We’ve done that all over the country; we like to participate in all kinds of helpful activities. But we sure feel like we’re not being treated fairly.”
The Fakkema Access Road is currently on the city’s Capital Improvement Plan for this year. If the council decides to move forward with the project, construction could begin in the second quarter.