Oak Harbor opts to appeal UGA ruling

Oak Harbor officials are challenging a state board’s decision that they feel will hamper the city’s ability to plan for population growth in the future.

Following an executive session last week, the city council voted to appeal the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board’s stark rejection of the city’s wide-ranging petition against Island County.

The “appeal and petition for review of administrative action” was filed in Thurston County Superior Court Friday. While the city’s original challenge to the hearings board contained 16 legal issues --- and the city lost on all counts --- the new appeal argues a whopping 30 issues.

County officials were disappointed by the decision to appeal.

“It means additional resources will be consumed dealing with the appeal instead of getting ready for the next round of comprehensive plan updates,” Island County Planning Director Bob Pederson said.

The central issue being debated is the shape of the city’s urban growth area, commonly called a UGA. It’s the land outside of city limits earmarked for future annexation.

City planners wanted to expand the city’s UGA by 180 acres, including 105 acres of farmland on the west side of the city. Environmentalists opposed the request, arguing that it would amount to urban sprawl.

The city submitted the request to the county since county commissioners have the final authority over the UGAs. After a five-year delay, the commissioners finally made a decision in 2010, rejecting all of the UGA expansion except for a 18-acre commercial property.

County planners argued that the city already has more than enough land in the existing UGA to accommodate growth.

In response, city officials appealed to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board on 16 legal issues, ranging from the county’s supposed lack of communication with the city to county planning policies that allegedly promote urban sprawl.

The board issued its decision Dec. 12 and rejected all of the city’s arguments.

Oak Harbor Councilman Jim Campbell, who announced he is running for county commissioner this year, said he voted to appeal in order to preserve the city’s options in planning for the future.

“The ruling from the board basically puts a fence around Oak Harbor,” he said. “We need to be able to plan.”

Campbell said the ruling could also “hog tie” future commissioners’ ability to plan.

Oak Harbor City Attorney Margery Hite, who happens to be a former member of the hearings board, pointed out that the hearings board did not enter findings of fact and conclusions of law, which she said are required by law. She said she couldn’t go into detail about other issues that are being appealed, but pointed to the petition for more information.

The petition doesn’t go into detail about the city’s arguments, but simply states that the hearings board erred in all of its decisions. It states, for example, that the “board erred in finding that the city has no discretion in making UGA determinations.”

In the petition, city officials argue that the board also erred in granting Whidbey Environmental Action Network status as an intervenor in the case. The environmental group took the county’s side in the arguments and members aren’t happy about the city’s appeal.

“It is unfortunate that the city has chosen to throw good money after bad. Those are taxpayer dollars they’re tossing. The hearings board’s decision was thoughtful, well reasoned, and based on facts and the law. The court is very likely to uphold the hearings board on all counts,” WEAN member Marianne Edain said in a press release.

The county’s next comprehensive plan update is due in three or four years and the UGA issues will be studied again, which means the city will have another shot at expanding its UGA. Yet Hite said it was important to appeal the ruling or it will stand as the final decision and impact how planning is done in the future. City officials, for example, didn’t feel that county planners were inclusive enough in decision making and they don’t want a repeat of that.

“Many of the things discussed in this case will come up in the next go-around and the city wants to rectify these issues,” Hite said.


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