Citizens’ advisory panel likely as sewer debate moves forward

Time for another collective voice on the Freeland sewer issue.

A citizens’ advisory committee is expected to be formed to work with water and sewer commissioners to come up with a way to make sewers affordable — and palatable — to the community.

Pushed for by opponents of a proposed $40 million sewer project that has bogged down under the weight of anticipated costs and other issues, the creation of the committee is expected to be approved by commissioners at their next meeting on Monday, May 9.

“I think it’s a very good idea,” Rocky Knickerbocker, chairman of the Freeland Water and Sewer District Commission, said Thursday. “It’s important, because the public has a lot of questions.”

Gary Hess, district engineer, has been charged with shaping guidelines for the makeup and mission of the committee, and he has come up with a three-page draft.

Hess proposes that the new committee meet once a week until the end of the year, beginning June 1, periodically updating the commission on its deliberations.

Size and makeup of the panel, selected by the commissioners, would be determined by the number and diversity of residents and property owners who volunteer.

Hess suggests that committee members put in eight hours per week, including meetings, and issue a final report to commissioners by Dec. 31. The commission would take into consideration the committee’s recommendations, but those recommendations wouldn’t be binding.

Hess recommends a balanced committee representing all interests and opinions, with members “who need to be open-minded about the project” and who will consider “the best long-term interest of the community.”

Opponents of the current plan hailed the news.

“It’s a very welcome move on the part of the commissioners,” said Lou Malzone, a member of Property Owners Opposed to Proposed Sewers, a group of Freeland property owners that has battled the sewer plan on a number of fronts.

“It’s a very positive thing,” Malzone said Thursday. “I’ve already put my name on the list.”

His one hesitation is that the Dec. 31 cutoff may be unrealistic.

“That may not be long enough to do the job,” Malzone said.

The plan to form a local improvement district (LID) composed of 471 parcels was suspended by commissioners earlier this month when it was determined that current property values wouldn’t support it.

Opponents, meanwhile, have continued to raise additional questions about the project, including the actual role existing septic systems play in the pollution of Holmes Harbor, one of the major stated justifications for sewers.

They also say that population and economic forecasts for Freeland may prove to be vastly exaggerated, given the state of the economy, and that there’s a danger a sewer system could be overbuilt.

Several opponents also urge that the district take advantage of two smaller systems already in place in Freeland in an effort to keep costs down.

But mostly, opponents fear that assessments on individual properties will be too high, forcing many of the owners to sell up and move — if they could find buyers.

Hess suggests the new advisory committee review planning already completed for a sewer system, the proposed phasing and financing, alternate proposals and cost comparisons. Members would have ready access to district staff and consultants.

“A successful outcome for the community is the committee’s advocacy for the project to gain wider community support for implementing the program,” Hess wrote in his draft.

Chet Ross, president of the Freeland Area Chamber of Commerce, who has toiled for years to get a sewer system in Freeland, applauded the proposed formation of a citizens’ committee.

“I think it’s good,” Ross said Thursday. “It should help correct some of the misinterpretations and assumptions being bandied about.”

The Freeland sewer project already has received $5 million in grants from the state Department of Ecology and the county’s rural-development fund for planning and land acquisition.

Sewer proponents say they will vigorously continue to seek out grants and loans that would help make the project affordable.