Freeland sewer backers delay LID hearing

The Freeland Water and Sewer District has pushed back until next spring the date for a hearing to form a local improvement district for a new sewer system.

“What we’re going though now will provide much better information for the community,” said Chet Ross, president of the Freeland Area Chamber of Commerce and the front man for the effort to get a sewer system built in Freeland.

At its meeting on Dec. 13, the water and sewer district board of directors decided to reschedule the local improvement district (LID) hearing until Tuesday, May 24. The original date was to be next month.

A LID is a method by which property owners share in the cost of infrastructure improvements.

“Everything so far has been premature,” Ross said. “We weren’t able to present our case because we didn’t have all the information.”

And he added: “What’s it going to cost? That’s something everybody wants to know. As we move forward, quite a bit of information will be coming out. We won’t know until it’s all done.”

The effort to get sewers for Freeland, the unincorporated commercial hub of South Whidbey, has been ongoing since the fall of 2005. A sewer system is integral to the corresponding effort to make Freeland a city.

County planners expect the population of the Freeland area to grow to approximately 4,000 by the year 2020, with the bulk of new residents being retirees from the Seattle area.

Substantial commercial growth also is expected in Freeland as the population of the entire South End grows.

A sewer system also would help to restore and protect the water quality of Holmes Harbor, and would allow for compact urban development as outlined in the Freeland Subarea Plan.

As envisioned, a sewer system would be completed in phases, with the bulk of the work to be done at one time at an estimated cost of $38 million. State and federal grants are essential to the plan, to keep the cost to Freeland businesses and residents as low as possible.

“We’re continually working on loans and grants,” Ross said. “There are a lot of programs out there. Whether we have any funds to work with, that’s the big question.”

A big blow was dealt to the Freeland sewer effort when the United States Department of Agriculture this past fall failed to award $10 million in low-interest loans to the project.

USDA officials agreed the Freeland project was a good one, but said that preliminary work by the community was not advanced enough to qualify for limited funds available this year. The federal agency urged water and sewer district officials to reapply in 2011.

Sewer proponents had said that with the $10 million from USDA, Freeland homeowners could expect to pay between $12,900 and $18,400 to hook up to a new sewer system. That’s on top of an estimated $10,500 that homeowners may face to remove an existing septic system.

Without the USDA grant or other assistance, the cost to residents would obviously increase.

Ross said hastily organized community meetings leading up to the original January LID hearing had been a requirement of the USDA. Failure to obtain the grant allows sewer supporters additional time to gather more detailed information and cost estimates for the project, he said.

Ross said that key to the renewed effort will be a benefit analysis study to be conducted by the water and sewer district’s consultants, McCauley & Associates of Everett. He said the firm had been unable to complete the study earlier due to prior commitments, but has promised to deliver results in the next 90 days.

Ross said the study will look at each piece of commercial and residential property within the area earmarked for sewers to determine if it would comply with state law, which requires that the increase in the value of the property exceeds the cost to the owner to hook up to a sewer system.

That means, for example, that if a parcel is assessed at $100,000, and the cost of the sewer hookup were $20,000, then the new value of the property must exceed $120,000, Ross said.

“Our facts and figures so far have been based on preliminary information at hand,” he said. “The benefit analysis will fine-tune all that.”

Meanwhile, sewer supporters will continue to search for state and federal funds for the project, Ross said.

The water and sewer district has applied for a low-interest loan of $3 million from the state Department of Ecology for design work on a new system. The district expects to hear in February if the loan will be approved.

The only guaranteed money the water and sewer district has secured for the project is $2.5 million in Island County sales-tax revenues set aside for the Freeland sewer project as part of a rural development program.

The district has been using that money to acquire property for the proposed sewer system. This past year, it purchased 80 acres of the former Trillium Woods property north of Freeland to be used as a dispersal area for treated water from the proposed sewer treatment plant.

Earlier this year, the district also purchased 10 acres off Bush Point Road between Highway 525 and Mutiny Bay Road, for $275,000, using a grant from the state Department of Ecology.

The treatment plant would be installed in a building about the size of a large house on the parcel. The water reclamation facility would have no outdoor ponds, and would be designed to be odor-free, engineers have said.

The water and sewer district currently encompasses about 1,050 acres, and serves 442 commercial and residential customers in the Freeland area.

Rocky Knickerbocker, president of the district’s board of commissioners, said in announcing the new date for an LID hearing that while the search for state and federal funds continues, “ultimately funding will need to be a public-private partnership.”

“Funding agencies want to know that there is community and collateral support — in the form of an LID — before they write a check,” Knickerbocker said.

He said additional community meetings will be held next year leading up to the LID hearing in May.

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