Commissioners vote to fund Harbor Inn project

The only motel in Freeland will soon be turned into a shelter to provide short-term “bridge housing.”

The only motel in Freeland will soon be turned into a shelter to provide short-term “bridge housing” for people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless and are searching for permanent shelter.

Plans to turn a portion of the 21 units into long-term supportive housing will depend on whether the new owner, a Seattle nonprofit organization, can get permits for a mixed-use development.

Following a lengthy public hearing Tuesday at which nearly 40 residents spoke, Island County commissioners voted 2-1 to provide $1.5 million in matching funds to the Low Income Housing Institute, commonly known as LIHI, for the purchase of the Harbor Inn. The county money comes from recording fees, which can only be used for projects related to homelessness and affordable housing.

LIHI also has a $1.5 million state grant that’s specifically for converting underutilized lodging into housing, which is seen as quicker and less expensive than building new facilities.

Commissioners Melanie Bacon and Janet St. Clair voted in favor of the funding while Commissioner Jill Johnson voted against it.

The project has spawned tremendous debate in the South Whidbey community in the last couple of months. Three quarters of the people who spoke Tuesday were opposed to the proposal. The biggest concern among the speakers was that the residents of the housing facility will commit crimes and otherwise cause problems, or as one resident said, increase “crime and grime.”

Resident Kathy Booth said a similar project she witnessed turned an upscale neighborhood in California into a place that’s no longer safe to visit.

“I know what’s going to happen,” she said. “You may not acknowledge it, but it is going to cause problems. The writing is on the wall.”

Many business people expressed concerns. James Norton said he recently purchased a business in Freeland and he doesn’t want his customers to feel unsafe.

Matt Nichols of Nichols Bros. Boat Builders said the inn is valuable to his business since he often has employees living there on a temporary basis.

Chet Ross, the director of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce, said nearly all of the business community wanted to see the decision delayed so that the county could complete its “due diligence” in looking into the project and the ramifications.

Several people also complained about the lack of transparency in the process, saying that few people even knew about the proposal. Several people pointed out, however, that county commissioners had several public meetings about the proposal and that the Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record have published a series of stories about the project, beginning last October. In addition, Bacon has held well-attended public meetings about the project.

The commissioners and staff members explained that the decision was a real estate transaction, not a permit application, which means the owner didn’t need to put up a big yellow sign. The county can’t do code-related work, like analyzing septic capacity, until LIHI applies for a permit.

Many of the people who spoke in favor of the proposal said it was unfair and inaccurate to assume the worst of the people will live at the facility. Several people argued that the housing would make the community safer, especially since the facility will have people on staff watching over the residents.

Lisa Connolley, a pastor in Coupeville, said she has a lot of experience working with such “harm reduction housing.”

“The people who benefit the most from this type of housing are the people in the greater community,” she said. “It is the businesses where you don’t have people sleeping in your doorway. It is the neighbors who are afraid of people sleeping in the woods.”

The sentiment was similar to comments Sheriff Rick Felici made at an earlier meeting. He said it was better from a safety standpoint to have homeless people housed at a shelter with oversight than to have them camping in woods or sleeping in cars.

In response to community concerns, the commissioners created a contract with LIHI that spells out the group’s obligations. The facility has to have at least 1.5 full-time-equivalent live-in case managers. Residents have to sign and abide by a code of conduct. The grounds must be kept clean.

Bridge or transitional housing is temporary and, therefore, in the same land-use category as a motel. That means LIHI won’t need to go through a permitting process for bridge housing.

Supportive housing is a different matter since it’s long-term and considered a residential use. Under supportive housing, residents will have access to coordinated and supportive services on a permanent basis.

After the vote, Johnson spoke about her opposition to the project, admitting that she’s spoken in support previously. She said she wanted people to know her decision wasn’t partisan — she’s the sole Republican on the board — and that she doesn’t believe there will be safety or crime issues.

Johnson argued that the project trades one set of problems for another set of problems. While it will help with the lack of affordable housing, it means fewer options for lodging or short-term workforce housing. She said it’s easier to create new housing than new hotels.

In addition, she said she agreed with Reece Rose, who said the $3 million price tag was artificially inflated because government was picking up the cost.

“We were a willing buyer at a price the market wasn’t going to pay,” she said.

Likewise, St. Clair said she has significant concerns about whether the project is viable, but that’s an issue that will be decided during the permitting process. She also pointed out that multiple evidence-based studies have shown that supportive housing is effective.