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Oak Harbor loses 16-0 in its appeal

The board charged with enforcing the state’s Growth Management Act ruled against the city of Oak Harbor in its wide-ranging appeal of the Island County commissioners’ effort to prevent urban sprawl.

The Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board rejected all 16 legal questions raised by the city. It was an especially stinging refutation of the city’s arguments since a former member of the hearings board, City Attorney Margery Hite, represented Oak Harbor.

The hearings board concluded the “county prevented further sprawl and encouraged growth within the existing UGA,” and that it is “not within cities’ discretion to determine UGA boundaries.”

“To me, it was an unnecessary and expensive lawsuit. We’re just wasting the taxpayers’ time and money doing this,” County Commissioner Angie Homola said. She’s been involved in efforts to protect rural areas west of the city since before she became a commissioner.

Homola said she hopes that this will mark “a turning point” and that planners from the city and county will start working together. She’s been trying to get the two planning departments to be more collaborative.

“I’ve reached out many times with very little success,” she said. “The response has been in the form of lawsuits.”

The decision by the hearings board may not put an end to a controversy that’s been brewing since 1995. Hite said the issue will likely be on the City Council agenda Jan. 3 for an executive session and council members will have to decide whether to appeal. She said she couldn’t discuss the decision because it may be part of ongoing litigation, depending on the council decision.

The city filed the petition for review with the Growth Management Hearings Board about six months ago. The board came to the city in November to hear arguments from the city, the county and Whidbey Environmental Action Network, which filed as an intervenor on the county’s side. Deputy Attorney Daniel Mitchell and Planning Director Bob Pederson argued on behalf of the county.

City officials were upset that the county commissioners denied the city’s request to expand its urban growth area, or UGA, by 180 acres. The UGA is a ring of property outside the city limits that’s earmarked for annexation and development. Last year, the county commissioners stripped out all of the areas of low-density residential property from the city’s expansion request and allowed only an 18-acre, commercial property into the UGA.

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.

City planners completed a housing analysis which showed that the city already had more than enough property within the city — a total of 105 percent — to accommodate projected growth for the 20-year planning horizon. After receiving the request from the Fakkemas, city officials decided that the UGA should be expanded to accommodate 126 percent of projected growth. In the decision, the hearings board referred to this as a “questionable 126 percent growth factor.”

Under the Growth Management Act, the city’s request to expand its UGA had to be sent to the county commissioners, who have the final say. The former planning director, who worked under a Republican-majority board of commissioners, identified environmental concerns with the expansion and proposed an interlocal agreement to mitigate the issues. The city, however, appealed to the hearings examiner, along with a couple of environmental groups, and the county withdrew the proposal.

As a result, the UGA expansion request was in limbo for years, until city officials pressed county planners to take up the issue last year. But to the  disappointment of city officials, the new planning director, Pederson, recommended against expanding the residential UGA. He pointed out that the population projections the city used in 2005 turned out to be inflated and that the city’s housing analysis may not have been completely accurate. He also emphasized that the city’s own land capacity analysis showed there was more than enough land capacity in the current UGA to accommodate even the inflated population projections.

The commissioners agreed with Pederson and approved the inclusion of only the 18-acre commercial parcel. City officials appealed to the hearings board.

In a recent interview, Homola said only a handful of people would have benefited from the larger expansion of the UGA.

“Expanding urban growth areas will only cost taxpayers more money,” she said, referring to the increased cost of providing urban services. She added that building more houses on the periphery will cause the value of existing homes to decline.

But mostly, she said, her decision was about protecting the environment and the quality of life.

“Citizens here have said over and over again that they really value the island’s quality of life. That’s why they are here,” she said. “They expect us to be good stewards.”

Likewise, the leaders of Whidbey Environmental Action Network are pleased with the ruling.

“Unless appealed, the Hearings Board’s decision lays to rest this 7-year long attempt by Oak Harbor to sprawl out onto surrounding farmland,” the group said in a press release.

 

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