Downtown Oak Harbor selected as sewer plant site

Oak Harbor’s $93.5-million waste water treatment facility will be built downtown, in the vicinity of Windjammer Park.

Following more than two years of studies, field trips and public meetings, the City Council picked the site for the future sewage treatment plant during an eventful meeting dedicated to the issue Tuesday night. Both the mayor and the city engineer spoke on the monumental importance of the decision.

“This is one of the greatest decisions the City Council will make for the next generation,” City Engineer Eric Johnston said. “This is a long-standing decision that will be with us for many years.”

The odor-free plant will use one of the most advanced treatment processes available, which means clean and clear water will be discharged into the bay. The antiquated and malodorous sewage treatment plant in the middle of the waterfront park will likely be demolished.

But residents will see their monthly bills for sewage treatment double in the next five years to help pay for the project. The monthly rate could be as high as $100 a month by the year 2020.

The proposal, as it currently stands, is for the city to purchase the former Chevrolet dealership on Pioneer Way and build it there, though other properties in the area could be considered.

The property is adjacent to Windjammer Park and the home of a new business, Pioneer Automotive Services. Johnston said no one at the city has approached the owner of the $2-million property yet about the possible sale.

In making the final decision, council members and Mayor Scott Dudley made it clear that they don’t want the construction of the facility to result in a net loss of park land.

Members of the council and the public focused on the difficulty of the final decision. Earlier this year the council had narrowed the potential sites to Windjammer Park and “Crescent Harbor North,” which is a 24-acre piece of land on the north side of Crescent Harbor Road at Torpedo Road.

The city’s consulting firm, Carollo Engineers, estimated that Windjammer and Crescent Harbor would both cost $93.5 million, if a membrane bioreactor system is installed. The cheapest option would be to build an activated sludge system at Crescent Harbor, which would bring the cost down to $89 million. But the system doesn’t clean the water as well and may have to be updated in the future to comply with more stringent state water quality regulations.

The estimated cost of the Windjammer option increased as the details were sorted out, largely based on public input gathered in intensive design workshops. The increase takes into account the purchase of the commercial land, the cost of burying structures in the facility and the expense of demolishing the antiquated and smelly plant that’s currently in the park.

The operating costs of the Crescent Harbor site with a membrane bioreactor, however, would be $170,000 a year over the Windjammer site since the dirty water would have to be pumped farther.

Still, some members of the public want to keep a sewage treatment away from  Windjammer Park, which has long been described as the city’s jewel. During public testimony Tuesday, longtime resident Ron Hancock argued that the city had a responsibility to maintain the park for future generations.

“We need to think seriously about whether we’re passing them on a pot of gold, like we inherited, or rather it’s a gilded chamber pot,” he said.

Yet some elected officials and members of the public changed their minds about the best site during the drawn-out process. Many who were originally opposed to the Windjammer site came to embrace the idea, especially after the proposal was modified based on public input.

“It really demonstrates the power of the public process,” Johnston said in an interview Thursday.

Mayor Dudley was among those most adamantly opposed to the Windjammer site when he was on the council and during last year’s campaign for mayor. He didn’t want the park sullied by the sight and smell of a treatment plant.

Councilman Rick Almberg and Councilwoman Beth Munns had previously spoken favorably of the Windjammer site, pointing out that modern plants can be aesthetically pleasing and without odor.

The roles were reversed Tuesday. Almberg made a motion, seconded by Munns, to choose the Crescent Harbor North site with the membrane bioreactor system. Almberg pointed out that there’s the greatest risk of finding cultural resources near the waterfront. Munns said she wanted to protect the park.

The motion ended with a 3-3 tie. Almberg, Munns and Councilwoman Tara Hizon voted in favor, while councilmen Jim Campbell, Bob Severns and Joel Servatius were opposed. Councilman Danny Paggao was not present.

Dudley broke the tie and voted against it, explaining that operating costs were more expensive at Crescent Harbor. He said in an interview earlier that he was in favor of siting the plant on Pioneer Way if it could be placed on commercial land and kept out of the park.

Campbell then made a motion to choose the Windjammer site.

Almberg offered an amendment, mandating that the project would cause no net loss of land in Windjammer Park. But again, the motion tied with the same votes as before.

Dudley broke the tie by voting against it. He vowed that there will be no net loss of park land, but he said it was premature in the process to create a mandate regarding design.

In the end, all six council members voted in favor of the Windjammer site with the MBR system.

The target date for building the wastewater treatment plant is 2017.


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