News

City growth effort loses round

A three-year effort that could have ultimately led to 105 acres of the Fakkema Farm coming into the city of Oak Harbor has fallen back a couple of steps this week.

Island environmentalists and a city official heralded the announcement as good news, but for very different reasons.

Everyone agrees on one thing: “It may be a good thing, but it’s not really over. It just makes the process last a lot longer,” said Angie Homola, the founder of Oak Harbor Swan Lake Preservation Group and a candidate for county commissioner.

In a memo sent out this week, Island County Planning Director Jeff Tate proclaimed that the county is withdrawing “a mitigated determination of nonsignificance” in the city’s request to expand its urban growth area to include seven properties totaling 180 acres. The UGA is the area immediately outside the city limits earmarked for annexation.

The decision means that a June 5 hearing before the county’s hearing examiner has been cancelled. The city, Swan Lake Preservation Group, Whidbey Environmental Action Network and property owner GayLynn Beighton had all appealed the county’s 2007 decision that the proposed expansion of the UGA would not significantly impact the environment as long as conditions to protect the environment were met.

The city and all the groups that appealed argued that the county lacked authority to impose the conditions on future development within the city. Tate said he ultimately agreed after he tried to negotiate with the city, but efforts to reach a settlement failed.

In addition, the environmental groups contended that the county’s proposed mitigation wouldn’t protect the sensitive area east of the city from development. In a press release, Steve Erickson and Marianne Edain of Langley-based WEAN wrote that the farmland the owners want to bring into the city and build housing on drains into Swan Lake, an important site for migratory birds.

“WEAN, SLPG, and the Beightons have all claimed that turning the famland into a city would damage the lake and cause the needless loss of productive agricultural land,” the WEAN press release states.

The next step, Tate said, is for the county to go back and reevaluate the proposal and reissue a new threshold determination, which will likely take a few months. Three outcomes are possible: a determination of nonsignificance, a mitigated

determination of nonsignificance or a determination of significance.

Tate said “it’s not unlikely” that there will be a determination of significance. If so, he explained that county staff will do a much more detailed, lengthy study to produce an “environmental impact statement.” A possible result, he said, could be the denial of the proposed UGA expansion.

Oak Harbor Development Services Director Steve Powers said he’s satisfied that the county withdrew the mitigated determination. Beyond the issue of jurisdiction, he said he also disagreed with the county contention that monitoring of downstream stormwater was necessary, along with other concerns.

Powers said city regulations would adequately deal with any environmental impacts of development.

“It is not clear to us what off-site impact would not be addressed by the applications of standards within the city limits,” he said. “We don’t see what exactly are the downstream impacts they are trying to monitor.”

Tate, however, said his concern is protecting county residents and the environment from the overall impact of the UGA expansion, which would presumably lead to more intense development on the acreage.

“The city has a set of regulations which are good at addressing individual properties, but not the bigger picture,” he said. “Right now is the time to be looking at the accumulative impact of additional urban development.”

Homola questions whether any expansion of the urban growth area is even necessary.

“Although we are pleased that the environmental studies must be done, we are frustrated that expansion is even a consideration when the capacity for growth within the current city limits has not yet been exhausted,” she said. “Oak Harbor currently has enough growth capacity to last well beyond the year 2025.”

The whole undertaking started, Powers explained, as part of the city’s 2005 comprehensive plan amendment process. People submitted eight requests, later whittled to seven, for properties in the county that they wanted included in the city’s urban growth area. The biggest requests was for 105 acres, which was a portion of the Fakkema Farm, a former dairy farm on the east side of the city.

City planners conducted a capacity analysis to determine how big the city needs to be in order to have enough room for the projected population in 20 years. Policymakers decided that the city should plan to annex 126 percent of capacity in order to have a “cushion” to account for property that’s not fully developed.

It’s a study and a decision that Tate said the county and the state both praised.

The city did a review under the State Environmental Policy Act and found no problems with the proposed UGA expansion. The proposal was forwarded onto county officials, who have the responsibility for setting the UGA boundaries.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

Community Events, April 2014

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