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Updated subarea plan seen as Freeland’s foundation

The updated plan is in place. Development regulations are on the horizon.

Can sewers be far behind? Stay tuned, and wait for the static to clear.

By a vote of 2-1, Island County commissioners this week approved an updated version of the Freeland Subarea Plan.

The plan, required by the state when it designated Freeland a Non-Municipal Urban Growth Area in 2007, is designed to guide the character of the South End’s largest commercial center as its population increases by more than a 1,000 to an anticipated 4,000 residents by 2020.

The updated plan, the result of efforts built on information gathered from more than 100 community meetings since 2007, includes chapters that cover land use, natural lands, civic and open space, capital facilities, utilities, transportation, economic development and housing.

“This doesn’t get us to the finish line, but it gets us a whole lot closer,” Helen Price Johnson, county commissioner for the South End, said Thursday. “It provides the foundation on which the future of Freeland can be built.”

Price Johnson and Commissioner Angie Homola voted to adopt the updated plan at the commission’s regular meeting on Monday.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson voted no, expressing concern that the plan would help to lock Freeland residents into an expensive sewer system they can’t afford.

County long-range planner Troy Davis said Thursday that the next step in the planning process for Freeland is to create development regulations that fit the overall vision of the subarea plan.

Davis said the process will include public workshops to gather information, as was done with the subarea plan update. He said it’s expected that workshops will be scheduled later this year.

The proposed regulations would then be taken up by the county planning commission, and then by the county commissioners.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve still got a lot of progress to make moving forward,” Davis said. “We want to see this process wrapped up, and I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

Once development regulations are approved by the county commission, the foundation will be in place for orderly growth in Freeland, Price Johnson said.

She said that the county’s job in the process is to create a subarea plan and development regulations that offer a “visionary” framework for Freeland.

The third piece of the puzzle is a corresponding plan to deal with utilities, which she said is ultimately the community’s responsibility.

“There’s still so much more information that needs to come forward,” Price Johnson said. “There’s still more to be learned.”

She emphasized that the subarea plan isn’t set in stone, and that it can be adjusted to fit a utilities plan devised by the community. Sewers, however, are generally regarded as a prerequisite for incorporation.

They’re also seen as a pathway to cleansing Holmes Harbor and to reopening shellfish harvesting there.

“Our job is to provide the framework for a community conversation to happen,” Price Johnson said.

“I hope the community can focus on the issue and not get polarized.”

Polarization appears to be under way, however, as officials and property owners lock horns over a proposed two-phase sewer system expected to cost nearly $40 million.

Several residents and property owners have expressed concern over the proposed formation of a local improvement district. They fear that without state and federal funds, the assessments under the LID would be so expensive that many property owners would be forced to sell — if selling would be indeed possible.

Sewer proponents have used grant money from the county to do preliminary planning for a sewer system and to purchase property for a treatment plant and outfall. They remain optimistic that other grants and low-interest loans will become available for the project.

A public hearing on a proposed LID is scheduled for May 24. Officials of the Freeland Water and Sewer District, which is spearheading the sewer project, are expected to vote then on a resolution to form the LID.

Such a resolution would be followed by a 10-day period during which property owners can submit formal protests to the LID. If owners of 40 percent of the land within the LID protest the project, the LID can’t be formed.

The district plans to send notices to property owners before the hearing that will set out what the costs will be for each property. The district also plans to schedule another community meeting in April to try to answer additional questions and concerns.

Preliminary estimates of LID assessments are also expected to be released during two open houses, planned for May 10 and May 17. The actual amount of the assessments may not be determined until after the LID is formed, officials said.

Assessment costs may change if there are cost overruns, or if the project comes in under budget, officials said. The amount of grant money received will also affect the size of assessments.

Meanwhile, a group of more than 50 determined opponents of the sewer plan have been meeting weekly to organize a campaign to gather enough protest letters from property owners to block the plan by May 24.

The group has named itself Property Owners Opposed to Proposed Sewers (POOPS).

“I think it’s very appropriate,” said Marilynn Abrahamson, a group member who came up with the name.

Abrahamson said nearly half of the required letters of protest already have been collected, and she predicted the group will meet the 40-percent requirement before the May meeting.

“We’re going to do this,” she said.

 

 

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