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Island County slams door on Oak Harbor growth area

It was nearly five years overdue, but Island County officials finally gave Oak Harbor an answer on a proposal to expand the city’s urban growth area.

In the end, it wasn’t the answer city officials wanted to hear. And it could put a stop to Dick and Hap Fakkema’s plans to develop 105 acres of their farm, at least for now.

In an unusual decision in an unusual case, the county commissioners rejected their own planning commission’s recommendation from January of 2007. The volunteer board had recommended approval of Oak Harbor’s proposal to expand the city’s urban growth area by 180 acres. Monday, the commissioners decided to only accept an 18-acre parcel, zoned as light manufacturing, into the urban growth area.

“The board has received a substantial amount of public objection to the proposal to increase the UGA of Oak Harbor. Their concerns point to the unnecessary need for expansion and sprawl growth,” Commissioner Angie Homola said. “By the city’s own admission there is considerable capacity within the current city limits.”

An urban growth area, or UGA, is a ring of land just outside the city limit that’s earmarked for annexation into the city someday. Land that’s annexed can be developed at a greater density; as a result, many people are concerned about the environmental impacts of the city’s proposal, especially on the sensitive Swan Lake estuarine wetland.

During the public hearing Monday, representatives from three environmental groups — including the Swan Lake Watershed Preservation Group founded by Homola — and several individuals warned of environmental harm.

Steve Erickson of Whidbey Environmental Network argued that Oak Harbor’s expansion from sea to sea will form “an urban blockade across the island” which will eventually “sign a death warrant on wildlife populations on North and Central Whidbey.” Others, including a representative of the Whidbey Audubon Society, expressed concerns about urban runoff harming Swan Lake, which provides habitat to more than 100 bird species.

The focus of the controversy over the last five years or so has been on the Fakkema farm, a beautiful swath of land that runs from the east side of Oak Harbor nearly to West Beach. Brothers Dick and Hap Fakkema used to run a dairy on the farm, but later planned for a housing development.

During Oak Harbor’s 2005 comprehensive plan amendment process, property owners submitted eight requests, later whittled to seven, for properties in the county that they wanted included in the city’s UGA. The biggest request was for 105 acres of the 377-acre Fakkema Farm, though the brothers at one point wanted the entire farm in the UGA. Their development plans included walking trails, large sections of open space and the gift of a huge park and historic buildings to the community.

During public testimony, Hap Fakkema urged the commissioners to consider all that he and his brother have worked for their entire lives. He said the city’s expansion hasn’t caused environmental harm to the farm in his lifetime and further expansion wouldn’t make any difference.

“It’s not going to hurt Swantown Lake,” he said.

Dueling memoranda from the county and city staff revealed major anomalies in the way the former county planning director handled the issue, as well as friction between the two planning departments.

Island County Planning Director Bob Pederson inherited the unresolved issue when he was hired in the summer of 2009. In his memorandum, he explained that the county didn’t do a State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, threshold determination on the city’s proposed UGA expansion until late in the process and then didn’t complete it. SEPA is a state policy that requires state and environmental agencies to consider the likely environmental consequences of a proposal.

In January of 2007, the county planning commission approved the city’s proposal to expand the city’s UGA by 180 acres. The county planning department then started the SEPA process, which should have been done before the planning commission meetings, and issued a mitigated determination of nonsignificance. Under the finding, the UGA expansion was approved, but required the city to do certain things to protect the environment.

After the city, two environmental groups and a neighbor appealed, former Planning Director Jeff Tate withdrew the decision and indicated the county would instead issue a determination of significance which would require the county staff do a much more detailed, lengthy study to produce an environmental impact statement.

But for an unknown reason, Pederson said, the county simply stopped doing any work on the issue. He suggested it may have been dropped because of the high cost during a time of budget shortfalls.

In his memorandum, Pederson recommended that the commissioners deny the UGA expansion for all of residential properties, but accept the 18-acre parcel zoned for light manufacturing; the commissioners ultimately followed his recommendation.

In justifying his recommendation, Pederson explained that the city staff did a housing capacity analysis five years ago and found that there’s already 106 percent of the necessary housing capacity for the projected 2025 population. The city staff decided it would be wise to have a 26 percent “cushion” or market factor to ensure there’s enough capacity, given that some of the property may not be developed.

Pederson concluded that the modest growth of the last five years shows that city’s population projection was overly optimistic, that the 26 percent cushion may not be appropriate given recent Growth Management Hearings Board decisions, and that an appeal by real estate expert GayLynn Beighton suggests that the city’s housing analysis may have been flawed.

In addition, Pederson pointed out that the county is required to again revisit the UGA capacity issue in 2012. By then, 2010 census information will be available.

In a letter and comments to the commissioners, Oak Harbor Development Services Director Steve Powers was uncharacteristically blunt in his criticism of Island County’s planning process, and in particular, Pederson’s memorandum. Powers said the city could have brought a failure to act petition against the county because it was five years overdue in its obligations, but city officials decided to be patient “and attempted to deal with the county as a partner in responsible planning.”

“Now we find that this forbearance is rewarded with an after-the-fact challenge to the city’s timely work which was done in cooperation with the county’s staff and with numbers approved by them in 2005,” Powers said.

Moreover, Powers said Pederson mischaracterized the meaning of the 26 percent market factor, misread the city’s analysis and misread the city’s ordinance. He said the city’s analysis shows that the city does not have enough capacity within the city and current UGA to absorb anticipated population growth because there are market factors “standing in the way of development of all the land within the UGA during the 25-year planning horizon.”

Also, Powers wasn’t happy about Pederson using information from Beighton as a justification for denying the city’s request, especially since Pederson admitted the staff didn’t research her conclusions in detail.

“If the county staff has not scrutinized, researched or reviewed the issues raised by Ms. Beighton, how can they determine that the city’s work is inaccurate or that Ms. Beighton’s work is more accurate?” Powers asked.

In response, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson asked Powers to explain the supposed errors in the city’s housing analysis that Beighton illuminated in her presentation to the commissioners Monday. Beighton highlighted a number of downtown Oak Harbor mixed-use properties that could become, or are planned for, residential housing. She claimed the city ignored the properties in the housing analysis.

Powers, however, said he simply didn’t know the answer.

In her final statements, Commissioner Homola urged the county and cities to work together on a countywide planning effort based on shared goals for development.

“We must work together to achieve a long-term plan that maintains our tourism appeal while establishing realistic and sustainable growth. We are all in agreement that flexibility is crucial. Boxing ourselves in by designating an unnecessary growth footprint in one urban area is not fiscally responsible and is potentially damaging to existing residents and businesses,” she said.

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