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Oak Harbor mayor wants Freeland growth money

Disagreements between Island County and city of Oak Harbor officials over planning have turned into an all-out slugging match that the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board has been called on to referee.

At the heart of the matter is this: Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik believes that county officials are earmarking population growth and distributing money to Freeland at the expense of Oak Harbor.

“It doesn’t make sense that the county would allocate growth to Freeland, with no sewers, and not allocate growth in Oak Harbor, with sewers,” Slowik said.

“Money is being channeled to growth, which is Freeland, at the cost of Oak Harbor. We are competing for those dollars,” he said.

As a result, city officials have filed two separate petitions for review in the last few weeks with the Growth Management Hearings Board, which rules on issues related to the state’s Growth Management Act.

The first petition, which wasn’t much of a surprise, has to do with a long-standing dispute between the city and county officials about the size of the “urban growth area,” or UGA, outside Oak Harbor’s boundaries. City planners want it expanded to accommodate future development, while county planners say there’s no need.

But the second action came as a shock to a lot of people. Oak Harbor officials filed a petition for review against the county over the Freeland Sub Area Plan, which the county commissioners adopted March 21. The petition goes so far as to request the hearings board invalidate Freeland’s designation as a “non-municipal urban growth area,” or NMUGA, which could have huge repercussions on future growth on South Whidbey.

County officials wouldn’t discuss details of the ongoing litigation, but county Planning Director Bob Pederson said he’s not worried about the challenge to Freeland’s NMUGA designation.

“The time frame to challenge that would have been a long ago,” he said, adding that a citizen did challenge it previously and lost.

Oak Harbor Planning Director Steve Powers said the purpose of the petitions, from his point of view, is to make sure “we’re all playing by the same rules,” meaning the Growth Management Act. He agrees that the Oak Harbor UGA issue and the Freeland Sub Area Plan are interrelated.

“There is a relationship between how the county allocates growth and how growth occurs,” he said.

Slowik said it just doesn’t make sense from a planning or environmental standpoint that the county, through the Freeland Sub Area Plan, would allocate population growth of up to 6,000 people to an area without sewers. Freeland-area officials are planning a sewer system for Freeland, but they hit a stumbling block when the projected cost hit $40 million, funding dried up and a group of residents formed a group to fight the sewer plans.

Richard Delmonte, a leader of the group, has since commended Slowik for taking on the county over the Freeland Sub Area Plan. “Thank you for your efforts to have Island County become compliant with the GMA and Washington Sstate RCWs,” he wrote in an email to the mayor.

On the other hand, Slowik’s assertion that the county isn’t allocating growth to Oak Harbor isn’t entirely accurate.

As part of a 2005 comprehensive plan update, Oak Harbor planners completed a housing analysis and decided that the city needed to expand its UGA by 180 acres to accommodate expected growth — and then some — for the 20-year planning period.

After a lengthy delay, county commissioners rejected the city’s proposal based on population growth being less than expected, as well as perceived problems with the city’s analysis. Only one small parcel was allowed into the city’s UGA.

Then there’s the money.

Slowik is a member of the Council of Governments, a group made up of county commissioners, mayors and port officials in Island County. One of the jobs of the group is to make recommendations on how the county commissioners should spend revenues in the Island County Economic Development Fund, which come from sales tax revenues collected by the state and awarded by the county to assist rural communities with economic development.

Four years ago, Slowik voted in favor of spending the funds on the Freeland sewer. But at that time, the project was estimated at $16 million and plans for the sewer only covered the commercial sector.

The sewer project, Slowik explained, was expanded to include residential areas, partly to deal with the ongoing pollution problem in Holmes Harbor. Slowik, among others, questions whether it’s legal to expend economic development funds on a project for residential areas.

Following the recommendation by the Council of Governments, county commissioners allocated $2.5 million toward the Freeland sewer expansion. Of that, about $2.1 million has been spent.

In addition, commissioners allocated $100,000 a year to pay off any bonds for sewer construction; none of that money was spent since there’s no bond or sewers yet.

Slowik said the Freeland sewers are unfairly eating up all the economic development funds, as allocations from the fund have been closed over the last couple of years because of the Freeland project.

Slowik pointed out that Oak Harbor, the economic development center of the island, has received only $2 million in economic funds over the years. The money helped fund one project that’s completed, Goldie Road sewers, and another that’s underway, Pioneer Way construction.

By comparison, Freeland received more money than Oak Harbor, but the proposed sewer project is far from complete with no construction in sight.

Slowik said the city could definitely use the money for its own sewer project. He said the city plans to build a new $60-million sewer plant, and said the city is actually ahead of Freeland in planning and designing its sewer project.

As a result of the hard feelings and disagreements, the city of Oak Harbor is turning to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board for help.

City officials are asking the hearings board to decide if the Freeland Sub Area Plan violates a number of state laws.

Among the many issues, the city asks the hearings board to consider whether the plan allocates “growth to the Freeland Non Municipal UGA without adequate facilities and capacities for urban services.”

Also, the city suggests that the plan doesn’t adequately address stormwater, protect groundwater or prevent non-urban growth.

Island County officials responded to the petition last week with a motion to dismiss the legal challenge as premature and not ripe for review.

Deputy Prosecutor Daniel Mitchell wrote that the Freeland Sub Area Plan’s adoption was only a preliminary approval and not final. County commissioners will make a final adoption of the plan later in the year so they can gauge the cumulative impact of other comprehensive plan amendments.

In addition, Mitchell wrote the subarea plan makes it clear that urban levels of density and intensity will not be allowed in the Freeland NMUGA until after necessary infrastructure such as a sewer system is in place.

Community Events, April 2014

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