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Suit settlement could put more docks at Blakely

The agreement would end lawsuits over a now-defunct moratorium.

A debate over development in Blakely Harbor may soon come to dock.

After numerous lawsuits and amid concern from south-end neighbors over the future of the harbor and City Hall decision-making, litigants and the city are edging toward a settlement that could allow new docks on the harbor.

“It’s been kind of a sad journey,” said island developer Kelly Samson, one of a number of property owners who sued the city over a now-defunct moratorium on dock construction in the quiet harbor.

“I’m not against the harbor, I’m not against the neighbors, I’m not against the environment,” he said. “I just want to build a joint-use dock that I can share with my neighbors.”

Under a proposed legal settlement announced this week, the city would pay out $250,000 to settle nearly a dozen lawsuits filed over the moratorium. Of the settlement money, $150,000 would go to claimants, with the remainder to be used for improvements to Blakely Harbor Park.

Also, the council would amend a 2003 ordinance that limits docks in the harbor to two private community docks and one public dock, instead allowing the construction of “shared neighborhood docks” built to serve four or more adjacent shoreline homeowners.

In exchange, all litigation efforts would cease.

If any of the conditions aren’t met – including the ordinance change, which would have to be approved by the full council – the settlement would be voided and the lawsuits would continue their way through courts.

Both the claimants and the city have prevailed in preliminary judgments; several of the cases are now being heard on appeal, while another is slated for trial in February 2007.

Five years ago, three separate moratoriums prohibited construction of new docks on Blakely Harbor while the council considered new regulations for docks there.

Private homeowners sued, seeking monetary damages for diminished property values or regulatory “takings.”

The settlement would offer those like Samson, who bought property on Blakely Harbor several years ago intending to build a dock to share with three of his neighbors, a chance to realize those plans.

The dispute and the legal fees escalated needlessly, he said.

“It’s sad on both ends,” Samson said. “This thing took on a bigger life than I ever envisioned.”

City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs said the city had hoped to avoid litigation before early negotiations reached an impasse.

The city later created an ad hoc committee that included councilors Nezam Tooloee and Bob Scales to negotiate with dock proponents earlier this year, a move that yielded the settlement proposal.

Tooloee this week declined to comment on the nature of negotiations until litigation was resolved.

Briggs said that if the proposal is approved by council, it will be finalized and put into effect. If rejected, litigation would continue unless another agreement is reached.

Beyond the controversy over the docks themselves are concerns about the actions of city and elected officials. Iver Macdougal, president of the South Bainbridge Community Association, said the city pursued a surreptitious solution to a public policy issue.

“One of our major gripes is that this has proceeded in secret for many months,” Macdougal said. “When the city is talking about a major public issue such as the future of Blakely Harbor, it shouldn’t be done behind closed doors.”

Fearing environmental impacts and the loss of public anchoring space in the harbor, Macdougal was among those who took issue with the proliferation of docks there and prompted the council to act.

The settlement agreement, which is available for review at the city’s website, stipulates that even if it is approved by council the “ordinance amendments would be considered in an open public process with the required level of public participation.”

But for Macdougal, the dock debate also morphed into an examination of city protocol. By denying the public a role in the settlement talks to date, he said, the city has violated its role as a steward of the island’s waters.

Samson took a different view.

“I’ll just be glad when it’s over,” he said.

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