Proposed housing project causes stir

A proposed transitional housing project in Freeland comes at the expense of the area’s only motel.

A proposed transitional housing project in Freeland that comes at the expense of the area’s only motel has been causing quite the buzz lately.

Community members are also worried about the ensuing impact to the neighborhood, which is zoned as a business district.

Since last year, Island County commissioners have been discussing the potential conversion of the Harbor Inn, a motel in Freeland, to low-income units. The Whidbey News-Times and the South Whidbey Record reported that the commissioners authorized a $70,000 grant in October 2021 for the Low Income Housing Institute to help pay for pre-development costs associated with the prospective purchase.

Last month, the News-Times and the Record reported that the commissioners discussed a $1.5 million contract that would provide matching funds from the county for the housing organization to purchase the property in question and turn it into supportive and bridge housing. The $1.5 million would come from dedicated housing funds from real estate recording fees.

The county has yet to make a final decision on approving the funding, which is expected to come at the second or third board of commissioners meeting in July.

A person working at the front desk confirmed that the motel will be taking reservations through Aug. 1.

The Low Income Housing Institute project has since become controversial among some people in the community and was discussed during a forum for the two candidates running against incumbent Commissioner Janet St. Clair.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon, who represents South Whidbey, recently held a meeting in Freeland for her constituents that was attended by as many as 125 people. She noted that her “Monday Tea with Melanie” event also saw increased traffic, with about 20 people present wanting to talk about the housing project.

Although the purchase isn’t final yet, Bacon said many residents are mourning the loss of unincorporated South Whidbey’s only motel.

She has also had to dispel some myths and misconceptions about the project, such as the rumor that the Low Income Housing Institute will be shipping misbehaving people from Seattle to Whidbey Island. As she pointed out, some of the people who have been living in the motel already would be eligible to live in the proposed supportive and transitional housing.

“People are worried that this project is going to bring drug use and criminals to Freeland,” Bacon said.

Residents of the transitional and supportive housing will sign a code of conduct, which includes provisions about being a good neighbor. The building, which has 20 rooms, is intended to be divided in half, with some units reserved for short-term stays and others for longer stays.

“The fact is, the applicants for staying there will be screened through Island County Human Services,” Bacon said. “This is not an overnight shelter for homeless, transient kinds of individuals.”

She added that this is not the same kind of facility that is being discussed in some of the county’s other conversations, such as the proposed overnight homeless shelter in Coupeville.

With the Freeland project, there will be an on-site manager and a caseworker. The Low Income Housing Institute has drafted an agreement detailing plans to involve the community in the project, such as a community advisory committee made up of Freeland businesses and community members who will regularly meet with the housing organization and inform them as to how the project is going. Volunteers will also be welcomed to help plant gardens and flowers on the property along with residents of the housing.

At the same time, Bacon said she has heard people voicing a variety of valid concerns, such as issues with the area’s zoning and septic capability, although the number of people in the building will essentially be the same.

She acknowledged that the Low Income Housing Institute is in a tight spot. Without having ownership of the property, the housing organization is not yet able to apply for permits, which could either make or break the project.

Citizens are wary of the commissioners agreeing to help fund the purchase of the property without having all the answers, and Bacon said she wants to be sure the county can get approved permits. She explained that county officials could consider drafting a “ghost application” to assess the feasibility of the project.

“I want to be able to serve these people in need who just need a little bit of extra help,” she said. “I think a lot of people can relate to that.”

Leanne Finlay, a member of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce, expressed concerns about the impact the motel’s closure could have on tourism in the area. The Harbor Inn is currently the only lodging establishment on South Whidbey located close to the main highway.

“We don’t have enough motel/hotel spaces or enough overnight accommodations, in the Freeland area or even on the South End,” she said.

Finlay added that for travelers on a budget, the Harbor Inn has been a more economical option compared to vacation rentals in the area, or some of the lodging establishments in downtown Langley that can cost hundreds of dollars more per night.

According to a study assessing Island County travel impacts, Freeland ranked second for share of travel spending within the county, which amounts to 22%. Oak Harbor, which ranks first, is 46%.

Finlay attended Bacon’s community meeting on June 16 and while she agreed it was helpful, she believes more input from the public is needed on the issue.

She and many others also have concerns about the area in question being part of the business general zone, which does not currently allow for residential use.

“Any change of use will harm the businesses,” she said. “We agree that housing is extremely important, but not at the cost of the businesses. It needs to be in a zone more appropriate.”