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Let us grow, Oak Harbor tells Island County

Last month, the Island County commissioners denied the city of Oak Harbor’s request to expand its urban growth area.

So-called UGAs may seem like a small, esoteric subject to most, but not to Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik. He sees the expansion of the UGA, which allows for annexation and development, as nothing less than vital to the future of the city. UGA is the ring of land around a city earmarked for eventual annexation.

As a result, Slowik is not taking the county’s decision lying down. Or, perhaps, from the county’s point of view, he’s being a sore loser. Last week, city officials took the unusual step of filing a “failure to act” petition against the county with the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.

“I understand the county’s budget is tight and they have issues, but this is important,” Slowik said. “This action could be more important in 20 years than anything else we do.”

The issue underlines the differences in philosophies about planning between officials from the county and city, as well as a strained relationship between planning departments that are supposed to be collaborating on growth issues.

“I’m just trying to get the planning departments to work together,” Slowik said.

City petitions

for schedule

Through its petition, the city is essentially trying to force the county to do its own 10-year review and revision of urban growth areas and densities. The petition claims it’s work that, under state law, should have been done years ago, but was not. The city asks the hearings board to set a schedule for the county to complete the work; the city suggests it should be completed by April 30, 2011.

Clearly, city officials are betting that a thorough analysis by the county will result in an expansion of the city’s UGA, but it’s far from a sure thing.

County officials are apparently hesitant to talk about the petition, which is basically litigation. Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who met with Slowik to discuss the petition, didn’t return a call for comment.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks was reticent to discuss the matter, but said the petition was “odd timing” on the city’s part. According to the city’s petition, the work should have been done under the former county planning director under a former board of county commissioners. This year, city officials pressed county officials to finally make a decision on the boundary expansion request, but didn’t ask the county to first do its own, county-wide UGA and population review.

The push for “good planning,” as Slowik described it, didn’t come until the commissioners turned them down.

Island County Planning Director Bob Pederson didn’t want to comment, but pointed to his Aug. 31 memorandum to the commissioners. In it, he wrote that the county did, in fact, do the required review of the UGAs by working in concert with planners in Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley. Coupeville and Langley decided no boundary expansion was necessary.

City wants growth cushion

In Oak Harbor’s case, the analysis showed that the city theoretically had more than enough property within the current city boundary and UGA to accommodate projected growth for 20 years. But since it’s likely that some of the property won’t be developed to its potential, city officials wanted an extra cushion of 180 acres.

After the county planning commission recommended approval, the former board of county commissioners and the former planning director mysteriously dropped the issue two years ago after the planning director indicated that an environmental review would be necessary. Slowik suggested that politics played a role in delaying the sensitive UGA adoption during an election year.

Last month, the county commissioners finally took up the issue and rejected the entire UGA expansion request except for a parcel zoned as light industrial. Pederson presented the commissioners with data showing that the population projections used by the city showed more growth than has actually occurred.

“We were very surprised by their unilateral decision that day without referring it back to staff for more research,” Slowik said.

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