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Candidates differ on road ahead for Freeland sewers

It may be the difference between a “Stop” and a “Yield” sign.

Lou Malzone is challenging incumbent Nolen “Rocky” Knickerbocker for his seat on the board of commissioners for the Freeland Water and Sewer District. Although the district, which serves 440 customers and works primarily as a water provider to homes and businesses in Freeland, the focus in this election is on sewers.

Specifically, the plan for a $40 million sewer system that went down the drain after the district’s consultants said the project wouldn’t pencil out.

Malzone has been one of a growing group of Freelanders who opposed the $40 million plan as too expensive, saying it would place an unfair financial burden on property owners in the Freeland area.

Knickerbocker, by contrast, has been an eager advocate for a sewer system to serve the South End’s commercial hub. A district commissioner since 1997 and a resident since 1984, he said sewers are essential in the further development of Freeland.

The area won’t have much of a future without them, Knickerbocker said.

“We’ll be a no-growth area,” he said.

Sewers will help keep development compact, and that will mean more area preserved for open space and opportunities for affordable housing, he said. Without sewers, residents may see growth that sprawls across the rural countryside.

Knickerbocker, 64, is a plumber and heating contractor who has owned his own business for more than 30 years. He said his experience on the board, and the knowledge he’s gained as a business owner, will help the district if voters return him to the board.

The commissioner position is nonpartisan and carries a six-year term, and this year marks the first time that Knickerbocker has had to campaign to keep his seat.

Controversy over the $40 million sewer project prompted Malzone to run against Knickerbocker — and fellow sewer critic Marilynn Abrahamson against incumbent District Commissioner Jim Short — as the two outsiders hope to win in next week’s election and gain control of the three-member board.

Opposition to the expensive sewer project has led to some furious backtracking by district commissioners in recent months.

In April, commissioners called off the public hearing on the formation of a local improvement district, or LID, that would have pushed most of the costs of the $40 million project onto property owners.

Homeowners were facing assessments starting at a low end of $19,100 to pay for the project (or more, for larger residential properties and commercial land), plus another $10,500 in hookup fees and yearly costs of almost $800.

In recent weeks, Knickerbocker has stressed time and again that district commissioners weren’t going to force the project onto unwilling property owners.

Knickerbocker said the $40 million project “has never been, nor is not now, something I would accept for our community.”

“It was never the commissioners’ intention to do it at these high numbers,” he said.

Though the district has pulled together an enviable amount of grant money, it’s not enough to move forward with the current plan.

“The $7 million we received so far is not enough to make it economical,” Knickerbocker said, adding that the quest for additional outside money will continue.

“I would like a plan that is economical for the people who live here.

“It shouldn’t be a burden economically on just us,” he said, adding that the benefits of sewers for Freeland extend far beyond the shores of Holmes Harbor.

“It needs to be shared with all the beneficiaries, and that’s all the state and all the waters that Puget Sound touches,” he said.

Knickerbocker has repeatedly pointed to the board’s vote in April to call off the public hearing for the LID, and has said the $40 million project has been put off for good.

But Malzone is quick to note that the talk of the sewer project being in limbo is just that: talk.

A sore spot for some residents worried about the project is the resolution calling for the formation of the LID that was passed by commissioners in July 2010. They swarmed the board’s last meeting in October and asked commissioners to rescind the LID resolution, but officials declined to take immediate action. At that meeting, Knickerbocker said the resolution was flexible enough to be changed as the proposed project evolves.

Residents aren’t convinced, and point to the precise wording of the resolution — and a legal description that specifies the land that will be assessed to pay for the project — and continue to press for the resolution’s repeal.

What’s more, the resolution that Knickerbocker claims put the project in limbo only defers the public hearing on the LID, and also reaffirms the original resolution that called for a LID.

Malzone said if he’s elected, there’s no doubt about what will happen to the LID resolution.

“I’ll rescind it if I’m elected,” Malzone said.

Leaving it in place isn’t an option.

“It leaves the public totally confused as to what direction this is going in,” he said. “Once you say you are not going to build it … why are you going after grants? What are you doing?”

Simply taking a pause at this point isn’t the right approach. What’s needed instead is a full stop, Malzone said.

“From my point of view, you stop going after grants, and rescind the LID resolution,” he said.

Malzone, 63, is taking his first shot at elected office. He retired in 2002, after running his own company, which developed financial accounting systems for the mutual fund industry, and moved to Whidbey the following year.

Malzone said the $40 million sewer plan was fatally flawed because it assumed that growth in the Holmes Harbor area would help pay for the new system. Forecasts of growth made years ago, however, are unrealistic now given the cratering economy.

Malzone also casts doubt on another selling point for the new sewer system: that failing septic systems were to blame for pollution in Holmes Harbor, and sewers would help fix the problem.

There is no proof of widespread septic system failures, he said. And the few that have been found in disrepair have been fixed, Malzone said.

“Every septic system that was suspected has been corrected. There are no septic problems. That argument is gone, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Malzone also said district officials have overemphasized what Freeland must do to meet the requirements of the Growth Management Act, the sweeping state law adopted more than 20 years ago that guides growth and development in Washington state.

The law simply says governments must plan to accommodate future growth. That’s not a mandate to install expensive infrastructure that governments can’t afford to finance, he said.

“It does not say that you have to cripple the community by putting it in,” Malzone said.

Malzone recalled how district officials expanded the scope of the sewer project in an attempt to get federal funding for the project. It was done without the public’s involvement, and Malzone noted that residential property owners would have shouldered most of the financial burden for a new sewer system that was originally meant to serve downtown business interests.

“The residents got dragged into this; no vote, no petition,” he said.

The district doesn’t need to go back to square one, he added.

Instead, the district could go back to the five-phase plan the district was previously pursuing.

Under that alternative, the focus would return to the commercial core, and residential neighborhoods could petition to have sewers extended if they wanted sewer service.

“I think this whole thing has to be thrown back onto the commercial core,” Malzone said.

The chamber of commerce — the primary and original promoters of the new sewer system — has to figure out how much the downtown is willing to contribute to get the proposal built, he said.

“That’s a starting point,” Malzone said.

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