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Lawmaker agrees to vet Sunny View pedestrian concerns
With ceremonial hardhats on their heads and golden shovels in their hands, six years of funding and permit hurdles seemed to melt away for a group of dignitaries at a recent groundbreaking ceremony in Freeland.
Sunny View Village, Island County Housing Authority’s 26-unit affordable housing development, was finally and officially on its way.
But when it comes to headaches, Sunny View has proven itself a gift that just keeps on giving. Public concern is again aswirl over the project, and this time it’s caught the attention of two state lawmakers and raised red flags among state auditors.
Responding to citizen-driven pedestrian safety concerns, Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, has agreed to facilitate a meeting this month to discuss access issues central to the new development. At the table will be Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano, state Department of Transportation and county road officials, Housing Authority and project leaders, Freeland Chamber of Commerce Director Chet Ross and at least two South Whidbey residents.
One is adjacent property owner Jerry Stonebridge, and the other Rufus Rose, a Clinton man who is the impetus for the meeting. He believes Sunny View’s proximity to the highway will promote jaywalking by tenants and eventually lead to an accident. Once construction is complete and people move in, it will only be a matter of time, he said.
“I believe it’s inevitable, especially in inclement weather and at night,” Rose said.
Sunny View is located on the south side of Highway 525, across from Harbor Avenue and opposite of Freeland’s commercial core. Built by the Housing Authority, the project aims to provide workforce and low-income housing. Eighteen units are designated for families who make 50 and 60 percent below the area median income — about $36,000 at 50 percent — and seven units are reserved for homeless housing. One unit will house an onsite property manager.
According to Rose, Sunny View residents will venture into town on foot, but many will be reluctant to make the trek to the closest crosswalk at Fish Road. Instead, they’ll take the quicker and riskier route of crossing in front of the new housing complex, he said.
Rose is calling for a traffic light at Harbor Avenue, a cross walk and a bus shelter.
Smith hasn’t made any promises, but she did call Rose’s concerns “legitimate.” She also said he’s not the only one worried about the traffic implications associated with the development.
“It’s a legitimate issue and I’ve heard it from enough people in Freeland that I thought it was time to do some fact finding,” Smith said.
Teri Anania, executive director of the housing authority, agrees pedestrian safety associated with the development is an important issue and one that warrants discussion.
“It’s a community concern, and I share the concern,” she said. “I don’t want any of my tenants getting squished by a car.”
“Obviously we don’t want [an accident],” she added.
But, while the project is the catalyst behind next month’s meeting, this is largely a state Department of Transportation issue. Traffic lights and crosswalks are under the agency’s purview, not the housing authority’s.
In fact, she said a direct access from Highway 525 into Sunny View was initially considered, but state road officials said “no.”
Such reluctance to make changes on state routes are not unheard of. On Central Whidbey, people complained for years about the speed limit through Coupeville, and at least two pedestrians were killed and a rash of accidents occurred before the speed limit was lowered.
Anania noted that there is already a traffic problem at Harbor Avenue. The intersection is often backed up by motorists trying to make a left turn onto the state route. It’s a real problem, said Anania, and one that pre-existed Sunny View.
Smith said one of the primary purposes of the meeting is to get all the parties at the table, particularly road officials. The idea is to hash out the problem and, if a light and crosswalk are needed, identify obstacles standing in the way of their implementation.
“Let’s vet this and have the conversation with DOT,” Smith said.
Hayes is also expected to attend, as he is a member of the House Transportation Committee.
Whatever is decided, Anania does hope to mitigate the safety issue with conditions outlined in tenant leases which would specifically prohibit jaywalking across the state route. It’s not a perfect solution, but there isn’t much more the housing authority can do, she said. Highway infrastructure improvements are up to the Department of Transportation, and only so much can be done to stop people from breaking the rules.
“Can I control human nature? No. Can anyone control human nature? No,” she said.
Rose, one of many critics of the project, said it’s too late to stop the development and that he’s not trying. But, he said the problems are the result of poor planning and excuses simply won’t fit the bill.
“It’s the wrong place for the whole damn thing,” Rose said. “Now we have to correct a mistake, a mistake that includes a very high probability of injury or death.”
Who gets the bill?
Controversy has surrounded the $6.3 million project for years. Freeland residents have complained about a host of issues, from safety and access concerns to objections about cost and potential impacts to the environment.
Water quality was a major obstacle. At one time, the price tag of satisfying hefty septic treatment requirements was such that Housing Authority leaders worried the entire project would have to be scrapped.
Project funding and expenditures would prove problematic again last year and raised red flags with state regulators. The state Auditor’s Office stung the Housing Authority with two findings for fiscal year 2013, one of which was connected to the Sunny View development.
The finding is complicated, and involves problems concerning banking practices and the use of Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers — federal funding that can only be used for specific purposes. Boiled down, auditors determined the organization used $133,944 of the restricted funds to cover a deficit in another program.
According to the Housing Authority’s official response, the expenditure was a matter of timeliness. A reimbursement for the housing development was expected, but some expenses were due. Delayed payment would have had dire consequences as the project would have been stopped, leaving the Housing Authority on the hook for $650,000 in county grant funding and a predevelopment loan, money which was already spent.
“The Housing Authority had no other options and would have been bankrupt if we had not proceeded with Sunny View Village,” the official response said.
Anania added that the funds have been reimbursed since the close of the fiscal year. She emphasized the timing was critical, and that she didn’t want to let the project “just stop” when a reimbursement was certain.
“If I wasn’t sure those funds would be reimbursed, I never would have done it,” she said.
Given the organization’s current financial constraints, the additional cost of new highway infrastructure, such as a traffic light, would be beyond the Housing Authority, Anania said.
“We don’t have the funds to pay for it, I’ll tell you that right now,” she said.
A corner of the property could be donated for an easement, but it would be so small that Stonebridge would likely need to do the same in order to make something work, Anania said.
Despite the many problems that have plagued the project, organization and affordable housing leaders are championing Sunny View as a much needed development.
“It’s huge,” said Catherine Reid, housing program coordinator for Island County Human Services.
Freeland is growing fast, and this project is designed with the workforce in mind. The vast majority of tenants will be employed and working at businesses on South Whidbey, she said. The development will fill a big gap, and is just like any other apartment complex, it’s just affordable, she added.
“It’s unfortunate there were so many barriers in getting this built,” Reid said.
Lisa Clark, one of five members of the Housing Authority’s board of directors, acknowledged Sunny View has been a rocky road but said she still believes the Housing Authority made the right decision to build where it did. A task force of industry professionals identified Freeland as the number one spot on the South End in need of such housing. Also, parcels in Langley were considered, but they were much smaller and nearly twice as expensive, she said.
“No matter where you go there’s headaches,” Clark said. “This was the best out of the options.”
Clark is also the director of the Island County Opportunity Council, a non-profit community action agency serving homeless and low-income families and individuals.
She called Sunny View a “gift” for South Whidbey and was “delighted” that construction was finally underway. She added that worry about pedestrian safety on Highway 525 is important, but not more so than building Sunny View Village.
“I know we have concerns, but I’m not sure that outweighs the need for affordable housing,” Clark said.