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County will reexamine move to increase city's growth area

Island County has reversed course and is now telling the city of Oak Harbor that a comprehensive environmental study will need to be conducted if the city wants to expand its urban growth area.

In a letter to the county's hearing examiner earlier this week, Island County Planning Director Jeff Tate said the June hearing that challenged the county's earlier environmental review of the 105-acre growth area expansion should be cancelled because the county could not reach an agreement with Oak Harbor over a number of unresolved issues. As such, the county will order the preparation of an "environmental impact statement" on the proposal to expand the city's urban growth area.

The expansion had been opposed by the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, the Swan Lake Preservation Group and others.

Those who had opposed the expansion as unnecessary urban sprawl heralded the county's decision Wednesday.

"WEAN looks forward to working with the county so the environmental impacts of the urban growth area expansion are fully studied," Steve Erickson, a WEAN spokesman, said in a statement to the press.

Erickson said the proposed expansion would expand the island's largest urban area onto 105 acres of active farmland on the southwest side of Oak Harbor above Swan Lake and create "significant environmental impacts." The 105 acres is part of the historic 377-acre Fakkema farm, and Erickson said the Fakkemas also want to add the entire farm property into the city's urban growth area so it can be developed with hundreds of homes.

Erickson noted the Fakkema farm drains into Swan Lake, an important site for migratory birds.

"Over one-fifth of all bird species that have ever been reported in the U.S. have been seen at Swan Lake," Erickson said. "There will now be an opportunity for genuine and thorough analysis of the environmental impacts of turning open farmland above a sensitive coastal lagoon into a city."

Oak Harbor officials said the city was reviewing the county's reversal.

"We really haven't studied it," said Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik. "We just heard about it by e-mail and haven't talked with the county

to find out what their thoughts were."

"My feelings is they have to be satisfied with what they are doing and

I think they are very careful about it," he said.

Slowik said the city was not expanding, but just planning for an area that may be brought into Oak Harbor sometime in the future.

The controversial expansion of Oak Harbor's growth area has already arisen as a campaign issue in the race for county commissioner between Angie Homola and incumbent Mac McDowell.

Homola said the county's decision was welcome news.

"Speaking for the Swan Lake Watershed Preservation Group ... [it] did not come as a big surprise," she said.

"We realized that as soon as the land was transferred from county to city that the restrictions placed on Oak Harbor by Island County would not be enforceable," Homola added.

"Although we are pleased that the studies must be done, we are frustrated that expansion is even a consideration when the capacity for growth within the current city limits has not yet been exhausted. Oak Harbor currently has enough growth capacity to last well beyond the year 2025," she said. "Existing land owners are already faced with increased utility rates for a huge water tank required largely as a result of the new construction to the west of town. Adding 180 acres and intimately 3,000 new homes will mean even more taxes for infrastructure and emergency services to serve these new homes. We would like to see smart and fiscally responsible growth."

Record writer Spencer Webster contributed to this report.

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