News

Effluent line to affluent prompts strong reaction

Oak Harbor City Councilman Paul Brewer may lose his cool Tuesday night.

Brewer is upset that a sewer line extension to the Scenic Heights neighborhood is on the agenda for the Dec. 13 meeting. He objects to spending taxpayer money on building sewer lines to the affluent neighborhood — where the mayor and a county commissioner live — ahead of other important projects.

“I’m really concerned that the taxpayers are going to pay for something that residents there refused to pay for,” Brewer said.

The meeting is scheduled to begin early, at 6 p.m., because of the number of big issues on the table. The agenda includes a public hearing on the development moratorium on property within the Navy’s accident potential zone; an executive search for the vacant city administrator position; and hiring a project manager for the downtown Windjammer project.

Development Services Director Steve Powers said the council will decide whether to accept a design contract for a sewer lift station and sewer lines for the greater Scenic Heights neighborhood.

Powers pointed out that the $1.3 million sewer project was included in the capital facilities plan and in the sewer bond sale, both of which were approved by the City Council.

“It’s an investment in infrastructure to direct growth and manage growth in a particular area,” he said.

If the sewer lines are built, residents can choose whether or not to connect to the city’s sewage system.

Those that do will have to pay a connection fee that’s meant to recoup the city’s investment, Powers said. The agenda bill stated the “project is needed to address growing environmental issues and to accommodate anticipated growth in the area.”

Nevertheless, it may be a hot issue Tuesday, partly because the Scenic Heights residents already cost the city $200,000 over the issue.

In 2003, residents of the Scenic Heights neighborhood, in the south end of Oak Harbor, approached the city and asked for help in creating a local improvement district, or LID, to fund construction of the sewer lines and lift station. Most of the homes in the area are on septic systems, though a couple have failed and had to be hooked into the city’s system on an emergency basis.

To help out the neighborhood, the city spent $200,000 for legal work, preliminary engineering, an appraisal and bonding work. Also, staff members spent many hours working on the project.

But the 75 residents rejected the LID after receiving estimates of how much the project would cost them. The total cost of the project was estimated at $2.35 million. The average cost per lot was estimated at $15,000, but that number varies widely from property to property.

Many residents didn’t like the way the costs were divided. Under the proposed LID, the property owners would have paid in proportion to the increase in market value of their property. Some properties, especially undeveloped land that can be subdivided, will have a huge jump in value because of the sewer service, while others will have a more modest value increase.

After the residents voted down the LID, Councilman Brewer claimed the project “mysteriously and conveniently” became part of the city’s sewer plan.

Powers said the new project is much larger than the proposal under the LID.

Some people question the priorities in spending limited sewer funds on a residential project. Brewer said building sewer lines in the Goldie Road industrial area should occur before the Scenic Heights project.

Jerry Jones, a resident who would benefit from the Scenic Heights project, said moving the sewage treatment plant out of Windjammer Park, formerly City Beach Park, should come first. He points out that the council has made that a top priority. Over the years, many studies and consultants, including Roger Brooks, have also advised the city to move or close the unsightly, smelly plant.

Mayor Patty Cohen, who lives on Scenic Heights, has recused herself from speaking about the issue over a conflict of interest. Nonetheless, Brewer and others also say that the item is on the agenda because Cohen, her family and friends own property in the area and stand to gain from sewer lines.

Aside from Cohen, Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell lives on Scenic Heights Road.

Jones said Cohen’s family, the Flowers, own several empty lots in the area that will get sewer service. The News-Times could not verify this, though one member of the family does own a house on Rientjes Lane.

In a phone interview Friday, former city administrator Thom Myers said neither Cohen nor any other Scenic Heights residents pushed to have the sewer lift station and lines built in the area. He said the idea originated in discussion between him and development services.

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

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