Photo by Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times Oak Harbor resident Scott Thompson stands in front of a cornfield that his development group has proposed turning into a large affordable-housing project.

Proposal for up to 1,500 homes near Oak Harbor faces obstacles

A limited-liability corporation is proposing a large housing development that may help ease Oak Harbor’s affordable housing crisis.

The project, however, faces significant regulatory hurdles as well as skepticism.

Oak Harbor resident Scott Thompson is the principal investor in Wright’s Crossing LLC; he had a career planning utilities for large development projects. The group is seeking to build as many as 1,500 single-family homes on 10 parcels of land that total nearly 250 acres.

The price for the majority of the homes will fall in the range of $200,000 to $300,000, Thompson said.

The motive for proposing the development, Thompson said, is to help with the affordable housing crisis, though he said the new homes won’t even be enough to catch up with the need.

“I don’t feel comfortable living here and not doing something about it,” Thompson said.

THE PROPERTY, which is all under contract, is located on Monroe Landing Road, across from the Blue Fox Drive-in. Corn is currently growing on much of the property.

Thompson said he first looked at properties within the city, but there wasn’t anything big enough to accommodate a large housing development with the economies of scale necessary to price the new homes affordable.

The hitch in the plan is that county zoning doesn’t allow anywhere near the kind of density needed for the project, which means the land would have to be annexed into the City of Oak Harbor.

And that’s no easy task.

THE WRIGHT’S Crossing group got the ball rolling this week, submitting paperwork to Island County asking to get on the Planning Commission’s docket next year for a proposed expansion of Oak Harbor’s urban growth area, or UGA.

Under the state Growth Management Act — which seeks to limit urban sprawl — a property must be within the UGA before it can be annexed.

The property isn’t adjacent to city limits, but it’s “only a couple of parcels away” from the line, Thompson said. The parcels between it and the current UGA would need to be included in the UGA expansion and annexation.

“State law says you can’t leapfrog but have to bring in everyone in between,” said Beckye Frey, senior long range planner with the county.

UGA EXPANSIONS are complicated. The county sets the UGAs through the comprehensive plan amendment process. They cannot be expanded unless there’s a demonstrated need for the city to grow to accommodate projected population growth. The county adopted a medium range for population projections from the Office Financial Management.

A request for a UGA expansion requires the county to conduct a buildable lands analysis, which is a study to see how many vacant or buildable properties are in city limits. The idea is that the city limits shouldn’t be expanded if there are enough properties that can be developed inside the city to keep up with growth.

Frey explained that the county just conducted a buildable lands analysis that was adopted in December.

“The very thorough, very detailed analysis” showed that the city had enough capacity for growth within its limits over 20 years and a UGA expansion wasn’t needed, Frey said.

It would be “very unusual” for the analysis to change in such a short time, she said.

“It would have to show that something new has happened that we didn’t take into account,” she said.

THE CITYof Oak Harbor tried to expand its UGA by 180 acres six years ago, but county officials questioned the city’s buildable lands analysis and denied all but an 18-acre commercial property.

The city appealed to the Western Washington Growth Management Hear-ings Board and lost.

Frey said all jurisdictions on the island have now agreed to use the same methodology for conducting the analysis.

Even if the analysis shows a need to expand the UGA, that doesn’t necessarily mean leaders will pick the Wright’s Crossing property.

Commissioner Rick Hannold said the owners of other properties on the west side of the city have been “in line” for years to come into the UGA.

THE DEARTH of affordable housing has been a major concern on Whidbey since the Navy announced anticipated growth in the number of personnel associated with Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The number is projected to increase by 3,740 people, or 20 percent, to 21,980 by 2019.

Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce surveyed members and found they plan to hire 619 employees in 2017 and 2018, which will likely also add to the population.

Oak Harbor leaders have said they hope as many Navy families as possible choose to live in Oak Harbor, which would be a spark to the economy.

In a letter to the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Oak Harbor Schools Superintendent Lance Gibbon wrote that Navy families would prefer to have their children attend Oak Harbor schools, but that limited housing may force families to live an hour or more away.

“This adds over 400 hours per year that military parents are commuting rather than spending quality time with their families,” he wrote.

REAL ESTATEagents and property managers across the island report that affordable housing is very hard to find, and the problem is only worsening.

Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns set affordable housing as his top economic development priority and called for a big increase in affordable housing units to be built a year. He and Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson created a task force to look into possible solutions.

Oak Harbor Councilman Joel Servatius has been working with the city’s development services department to find possible solutions. He said the current rate of 40 to 50 housing starts a year in the city “isn’t getting the job done.”

Servatius said he’s “pretty excited” about the Wright Crossing project.

“I’m a big fan of in-fill,” he said, “but if what you’re doing isn’t working, you have to look at alternatives.”

OTHERS AREN’T so upbeat about the proposed development.

Commissioner Rick Hannold said there’s been an effort to “fast track something” without public input. He questions how a sudden increase in housing would affect existing home values. Hannold said he’s also concerned about traffic impacts on Highway 20, both at the site and the already-busy intersection at Swantown Road.

“The traffic would be an absolute nightmare,” he said.

Hannold noted there would be nothing requiring the group to build affordable housing. He points to a letter from the group’s planner to county staff which says it can only commit to having 10 percent of the houses being affordable, though the group expects “the project will have a much higher percentage.”

“I don’t think we want to see this kind of growth,” Hannold said.

Johnson said a project of the proposed scale must be in the best interest of the community.

“If there is a justified need to expand the UGA, I am ultimately going to support the needs of the city of Oak Harbor,” she said.

“However, that support is contingent on robust community outreach, a competitive UGA expansion process and clarity that this level of expansion and growth is sustainable and desirable given all the various infrastructure impacts that will result.”

Marianne Edain of Whidbey Environmental Action Network said the recent buildable lands analysis proves that a UGA expansion is not necessary.

Edain said such a project is “the very definition of urban sprawl. “You are building a problem instead of a solution.”

If the UGA expansion isn’t approved, Thompson said, other ideas can be explored.

“One of the things this is doing is creating a discussion,” he said.