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Big year coming for city of Freeland backer

With Freeland’s Main Street businesses behind him, Chet Ross looks to Freeland’s future as a viable and fiscally secure city in the coming years. - Spencer Webster
With Freeland’s Main Street businesses behind him, Chet Ross looks to Freeland’s future as a viable and fiscally secure city in the coming years.
— image credit: Spencer Webster

FREELAND — It’s going to be a busy year for Chet Ross, whether he runs for mayor of Freeland or not.

Though his name has been bandied about as a potential mayor of the future city of Freeland, Ross said getting the town incorporated is his main focus.

Indeed, the incorporation effort is expected to pick up steam soon.

In early December, Island County commissioners voted Freeland as a non-municipal urban growth area and approved a growth plan for the South End’s commercial hub.

And now, Ross is waiting for early February when the 60-day appeal period ends so that he and others can begin the campaign to answer commonly asked questions. Questions like “Are my taxes going to go up?” and “Why are you adding another layer of government?”

“We’re going to get the information together. We’re going to start planning the fliers so that we have much of that ready,” Ross said.

To answer the tax increase question, Ross needed to compare Freeland’s revenue with other local cities.

“We will have income comparison of Langley and another city that would be about the same size to show income and expenses,” he said.

Freeland generated a total of $89 million in sales taxes in 2w006, Ross said.

In comparison, Langley earned $33 million, Coupeville earned $39 million and Oak Harbor earned $330 million.

“Taxes generated was one of the first things that we asked ourselves about,” Ross said.

“And we have found that the sales taxes generated in Freeland are substantial. That is the lifeblood of any city.”

Ross doesn’t see that Freeland would need to raise property taxes with the financial strength the urban growth area enjoys currently. He bases his opinion on research he conducted on other western Washington cities.

In 17 other cities that have incorporated since 1990, Ross found that not a single one raised property taxes.

“Three of them lowered their taxes. And with the income that is generated in this area with sales tax, we don’t anticipate having to raise taxes,” he said. “And that is the information that we’ll be showing.”

Incorporation critics who live in the Holmes Harbor area have expressed concerns about being taxed for services that may not be improved.

But Ross pointed out that it was not the incorporation committee that chose the boundaries that included Holmes Harbor residents.

“The sub-area planning committee and the the county set the boundaries,” Ross said. “That included Holmes Harbor. The incorporation committee included them because they were included in the NMUGA.”

Issues over adding more layers of government would be resolved by the fact that for the most part, a city government would take the place of county government, Ross said.

But before that can happen, a ballot measure needs to be approved by voters.

And to get the measure before the voters, Ross and his team need a petition signed by 15 percent of the voters who voted in the last general election.

Urban areas need urban infrastructure, including sewers, Ross said. But sewers won’t be constructed until there is money to pay for them.

“All the state requires is that a sewer plan be in place that can be implemented in a reasonable length of time,” he said. “We have a plan that is approved by the Freeland Water District, the county and the state’s Departments of Ecology and Health.”

The first phase for the sewer will begin at the corner of Scott Road and Highway 525, wind its way down Main Street and end up at the corner of Cameron Road and Highway 525.

“Government involvement is very necessary. It’s too expensive for the property owners to take it on by themselves,” he said.

“We got a $1 million legislative grant for the sewer system that was funneled through the state’s centennial fund, knowing that we’re going to need further grants.”

Ross has seen many changes since his direct and indirect involvement with Freeland after arriving there in 1995.

“Freeland is more crowded than it was five years ago. Traffic is definitely a problem,” he said. “That has not been seriously addressed.”

“I want the community to retain the atmosphere of why everyone moved here,” he said. “Growth is inevitable and so we have to get a handle on managed growth so that our environment is protected in the way we enjoy. One way or the other, we are going to have the urban growth. Whether it is controlled at the county or local levels is really a question of cityhood.”

But, Ross also wants to see more community involvement with building and zoning codes.

“I also want to see new mixed-use commercial building in the downtown core, where you can have businesses on the ground floor and either condominiums, apartments or small offices on the upper floors. Part of that is already in the Freeland sub-area plan and I am sure it would be in a city code as well,” he said.

While many people within Freeland have moved here within the past few years, Ross has seen Freeland grow and change during the past 50 years.

He was born in 1939 in Ketchikan, Alaska where his father operated a fish trap wire factory.

“When statehood was coming, the state had planned to outlaw fish traps,” Ross said. “My dad got out of it before that happened and he retired. My parents moved here in 1955.”

The Ross family moved to Freeland because his grandmother lived off Woodard Avenue.

“It was truly rural and logging and farming were the two mainstays,” he said.

The 16-year-old Ross took the bus to school that first year but then he drove a 1956 Ford sedan during his senior year. Ross graduated from Langley High School in 1957 and began attending the University of Washington.

“I started in engineering and changed to business and accounting,” he said.

But Ross left the university before he graduated when a seafood company gave him “a hell of a job offer.”

“I don’t regret not graduating from college. I started out in accounting and then worked into management, which launched me into chief executive officer positions,” he said. “I was on the board of directors for the Association of Pacific Fisheries, which represented 95 percent of the seafood industry from Alaska to California.”

Much of Ross’ experience in front of state and federal lawmakers came when he was president of the association. The experience has helped, he said.

“I had to testify before state and federal legislators on behalf of the seafood industry, which gave me the foundation for what I am doing now trying to get grants for the city of Freeland,” he said.

During his working years, Ross served as chief executive officers for companies that dealt with natural resources of seafood, timber, oil and coal.

Ross retired from the natural resources industry in 1994 and returned to Freeland, where, he said, he enjoyed a couple years of doing very little.

He then joined the Freeland Chamber of Commerce, where he served in various positions before being voted in as president in 2007.

“Actually, I am busier now than when I was working it seems,” he said. “I still do what I want to do and enjoy what I am doing.”

As far as Freeland goes, the hopeful-city is his hobby.

“It is a way to give back to the community,” he said. “I will continue with helping the community out.”

Spencer Webster can be reached at 221-5300 or swebster@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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