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Use it or lose it

After almost a decade of exhaustive scrutiny and hundreds of hours of discussion, the Oak Harbor Municipal Pier Committee made an enormous leap forward last Thursday, voting to recommend that the City Council approve one portion of the project.

The Federal Transit Association awarded the city a grant of $836,000 to be used for construction of the municipal pier and park improvements in the area across from Island Transit's Harbor Station. The city would pony up 20 percent, giving staff a budget of just over $1 million.

City staff presented a new option to the committee. Rather than remain mired in the permitting process for a project that currently lacks funding, the federal money could be used to begin work on the uplands portion of the project.

City Engineer Eric Johnston said Flintstone Park improvements are included in the pier plan and, although the $1 million may not finance every item, the shoreline would be a whole new area.

City Administrator Paul Schmidt emphasized that the plan is only in the conceptual stage. Many more steps need to be taken, not the least of which is receiving the support of the City Council.

The design concept for the park, as developed by the pier committee, includes the construction of a multipurpose building with restrooms and a new parking area.

Johnston explained to the committee the formidable permitting process needed to push through construction of a new pier. With a lack of funding, renewing the permits already obtained could be counter productive and costly, he said, as valuable staff time would be uselessly expended.

"Permitting is a very complicated process," Johnston said.

The nature of the project requires a pair of Army Corps of Engineers environmental permits that expire in August and deal with regulations that address work performed in the water around endangered species and critical habitat. With rules for dioxins and other issues constantly in flux, Johnston said the city, if it were to renew the permits for the entire $11.1 million project, would be wise to wait until the last minute.

"The question is, do we invest time and money in keeping these permits active when we don't have funding for the entire project," he said.

The uplands portion of the plan not only meets the FTA's intermodal transit requirements, but avoids environmental issues for the time being and is consistent with the city's Windjammer Plan.

"Both the Windjammer Committee and the Municipal Pier Committee have worked in sync with each other. And they have worked incredibly hard," Johnston said Monday, adding that the project design has always included both the pier and the uplands portions. "This is a logical first step."

Concerned the pier project was losing possible funding to the marina renovation, the committee questioned City Administrator Paul Schmidt and City Development Services Director Steve Powers on the city's priorities.

"Are we trading in what we've done for the pier in the interest of revamping the marina?" asked Sharon Nicholson, representing Harbor Pride, the Oak Harbor coalition of citizens helping to preserve the city's past while opening the door to a sustainable future.

Powers assured the committee that the marina renovation and the pier construction are two entirely different projects. Schmidt clarified that the former undertaking is an enterprise fund operation financed by the marina's generation of revenue. The pier, on the other hand, is a general fund item.

"There's no revenue generated by the pier itelf," he said, adding that it could in the future.

The marina was ranked number one on a long list of prioritized city projects. Schmidt said the selection process the city uses in checking items off the list is strictly financial.

"The order is not based on when we get to it, it's all fund-dependent," the city administrator said.

The discussion ultimately led to the germane issue: the federal money available would be lost in September if the city did not move quickly. Schmidt said the FTA was unhappy when it heard rumblings of Oak Harbor's possible inability to use the money.

"They do not like to de-obligate funds once they are obligated," he said. Turning down dollars would effectively make Oak Harbor lose face with federal agencies and political delegations that have actively supported the project.

"It could be difficult to get federal funds in the future if we do not utilize these," Powers agreed.

As the committee let the new, multiple phase idea marinate, member Bill Hawkins presented Johnston a hypothetical scenario, asking if the city could begin the entire project in the given timeframe and with the available funds.

"I hate to say nothing is impossible, but given the narrow construction window required by the permits, this hypothetical scenario comes pretty close to it," the city engineer said.

Committee Vice-Chair Doug Francis agreed that tackling one part of the project would beautify the waterfront and protect the parcel of land he called "the most valuable piece of property in Oak Harbor."

"It makes good collateral," he said.

Keeping the September expiration date for the federal funds in mind, the planning department will put the proposed project in front of the City Council as soon as possible.

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