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Oak Harbor expansion stymied in 2-1 vote

While adoption was never really in doubt, a belated amendment to the Island County Comprehensive Plan generated plenty of opinions and even some squabbling during a meeting Monday.

The critics of the amendment weren’t concerned about what was in it, but what wasn’t. The county commissioners had stripped all but one 18-acre parcel from a proposal to expand the city of Oak Harbor’s urban growth area by 180 acres.

The commissioners adopted the amendment in a 2-1 vote, with lone Republican Commissioner Kelly Emerson voting against it. She supported Oak Harbor officials’ original proposal to expand the urban growth area, or UGA, by the full 180 acres. The UGA is land outside of city limits earmarked for annexation and development.

“People don’t move to a county like this to be crammed into an urban area,” Emerson said, adding that expanding the UGA would mean more home building. “Construction is a forerunner to economic growth.”

But the other commissioners, county planning staff and most of the people in the packed audience disagreed with Emerson’s assessment.

County Planning Director Bob Pederson gave a lengthy PowerPoint presentation with 2010 census data to show that Oak Harbor relied on overly optimistic population projections when planning for growth. He argued that the city currently has more than enough property to meet population growth to 2025, so there’s no need to expand the urban growth area for more housing.

“These trends are not an anomaly,” he said of the less-than-anticipated population growth.

Oak Harbor officials, on the other hand, have argued that the low population growth was a temporary aberration due to the recession. City officials aren’t happy with the county’s denial of the UGA expansion and have filed a “failure to act” petition with the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.

The entire issue goes back to 2005, when Oak Harbor was updating its comprehensive plan. Property owners submitted seven requests to have properties in the county included in the city’s UGA. The biggest request was for 105 acres of the 377-acre Fakkema Farm. Hap and Dick Fakkema’s plan for developing the property included housing, walking trails, large sections of open space and the gift of a park and historic buildings to the community.

Monday morning, Hap Fakkema beseeched the commissioners to allow the farm into the city’s UGA. He said doing so would avoid “rural sprawl,” which is just as harmful to the environment as urban sprawl. If the farm isn’t annexed into the city, it could be sold off in 5-acre lots, with no open space or trails.

Oak Harbor planning staff did a housing analysis back in 2005. Based on the analysis and population projections, city officials decided the seven properties, totaling 180 acres, should be added to the UGA.

But the stumbling block was the county planning department — under a former director and former commissioners — which fumbled the issue and then dropped the ball entirely. Last year, county planners picked up the issue again after city officials pressed them. Then last fall, the county commissioners rejected their own planning commission’s decision and decided to remove all residential property from the city’s UGA expansion request. They only accepted an 18-acre parcel, zoned as light manufacturing, located near the Navy base.

The commissioners’ proposal was sent back to the planning commission, which unanimously recommended approval. On Monday, the commissioners finalized the decision with the 2-1 vote.

But the issue might not end there. A new round of comprehensive plan amendments will occur in the next four years. And Commissioner Angie Homola said Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik threatened to appeal the issue “to the top,” which she said is just a waste of time and money; Slowik didn’t return a call for comment.

“Residents shouldn’t have to pay for hours and hours of staff time to grapple over outdated population projections,” she said.

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