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Study doubts need for area-wide Freeland sewer

Tacoma resident Luke Tingley, 6, horses around on a log in Holmes Harbor with his older brother Dylan, 9. The Freeland Water and Sewer District’s citizens advisory committee recently completed a year-long study that addressed a number of issues related to the creation of a sewer system, including the environment. Some members believe that it’s time to dissolve the Holmes Harbor Shellfish Protection District.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Tacoma resident Luke Tingley, 6, horses around on a log in Holmes Harbor with his older brother Dylan, 9. The Freeland Water and Sewer District’s citizens advisory committee recently completed a year-long study that addressed a number of issues related to the creation of a sewer system, including the environment. Some members believe that it’s time to dissolve the Holmes Harbor Shellfish Protection District.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Neither population growth nor environmental concerns justify the development of sewers in residential areas of Freeland, according to the preliminary results of a study recently released by the Freeland Water and Sewer District.

In fact, Freeland isn’t growing nearly as fast as many believe and the only potential need for sewers is in the commercial core, an area largely located on the north side of Highway 525.

“We have to be very pragmatic about moving forward with any sewer plan,” said Lou Malzone, a commissioner with the water district. “The population growth just isn’t there for a district-wide system.”

“The study is telling me we need to go back to the drawing board with the county and redefine growth in Freeland,” he said.

The citizen’s advisory committee, an advisory group for the district, has worked for about a year to compile population and growth data, examine environmental issues and investigate an alternative to a proposed $40 million sewer system that sank under the weight of public criticism and funding problems last year.

The committee includes Malzone, John Brunke, Al Peyser, Freeland Chamber of Commerce Director Chet Ross, John Chaffins and Jerry Stonebridge.

Using a range of local and state information sources, the study looked at growth and population trends for several Freeland areas: properties within the Freeland zip code, the boundary used by the U.S. Census Bureau known as the census designated place, the non municipal urban growth area and the Freeland Water and Sewer District.

While population growth has increased in some areas by more than 4 percent annually between 2000 and 2010, it’s largely flatlined in most areas at about 1 percent growth since 2008.

“Until the economy recovers the population growth in the Freeland NMUGA (non municipal urban growth area) will remain stagnant and there are no indicators supporting near term recovery,” the report said.

“In summary, examination of the various Freeland population and growth planning factors indicates that planning for a Freeland sewer system must consider business as the primary driver,” it said.

The study also looked closely at environmental concerns, particularly those related to the Holmes Harbor Shellfish Protection District, to see how they might necessitate the development of a new sewer system.

Using information provided by the Island County Board of Health, the study maintained that in three years of testing, from 2009 to 2011, 310 on-site septic system inspections were performed with 103 corrections made. There were just two reported failures.

The county is in the process of sharing its results with state regulators and hopes to begin the process of removing the closure area, which was formed in 2007.

“The bottom line is it’s not septic systems that are doing it (pollution),” said Brunke, chairman of the citizen’s advisory committee.

The low number of failures demonstrates that properly designed and maintained septic systems can function year round and that a sewer system is not required to maintain water quality in the harbor, he said.

The committee suggested the county prioritize inspections of very old systems near the water.

Finally, the study looked at an alternative to the now defunct Freeland-wide $40 million sewer system plan. It focused on the commercial core on the north side of Highway 525 with the option of adding an extension to the south side of the street.

The main issue examined was how to treat and dispose of effluent. Any new treatment facility will likely use membrane bio-reactor technology. As for disposal, one option is for an outfall into Admiralty Inlet, another would use wetlands for discharging and a third drain fields.

Preliminary cost estimates were created but they have not yet been released. Malzone said the numbers are still too rough but should be formally presented to the commissioners by the citizens advisory committee next month.

According to Malzone, the importance of the study results is that much of the population data contradicts information in existing documents.

“The study is telling me we need to go back to the drawing board with the county and redefine growth in Freeland,” he said.

It’s very possible that changes will need to be made to the comprehensive sewer plan and the Freeland sub-area plan.

However, Malzone made it clear that the water and sewer district commissioners won’t be making any decisions about any of the options revealed in the study until the board gets input from property owners in the Freeland core through a signed petition.

Malzone said the commissioners are not a “no sewers” board and that it is working to develop a plan for an appropriate sewer system that will fit the existing need.

But a lot has changed.

“We’re years into this and we’re going back to square one,” Malzone said.

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