Island County prevailed once again in litigation over the City of Oak Harbor’s efforts to expand its western boundaries.
In an opinion released Monday, a Thurston County judge rejected the city’s appeal of the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board’s 2011 decision upholding the county’s adoption of the urban growth area update.
The judge’s decision ends an eight-year saga that began after city leaders concluded they needed to expand the city’s urban growth area, known as the UGA, by 180 acres to accommodate 20 years of growth. The UGA is land adjacent to city limits which is earmarked for annexation.
Gregory Banks, Island County prosecuting attorney saw the judge’s action as a clear win for the county.
“The county’s decision protected over 170 acres of farm lands and rural lands from being unnecessarily designated as urban growth areas. Under state law, new high-density urban development can only occur in designated urban growth areas, or existing urban areas,” Banks said in a release. “In the first round of the city’s appeal, the Growth Management Hearings Board found that Island County’s decision properly prevented further urban sprawl by focusing growth within the existing UGA.”
The county commissioners, who have ultimate authority over the shape of UGAs, delayed a decision for years and then surprised city leaders in 2011 by refusing the expansion request beyond an 18-acre commercial parcel.
City officials appealed to the Growth Management Hearings Board and lost, then appealed to the Superior Court, and again lost on all issues.
Washington Environmental Action Network, which argued on the county’s side in court, hailed the decision as an environmental victory that protects the fragile Swan Lake coastal lagoon from urbanization.
“Expansion of the Oak Harbor UGA would be bad for Swan Lake, bad for the environment, and bad for the taxpayers. The last thing Oak Harbor needs is more low-density urban sprawl,” WEAN spokesman Steve Erickson said. “It’s time for the city to grow up, not out.”
The opinion may put on hold city leaders’ plans to expand residential areas into the county, including bringing historic Fakkema farm within city limits, but both city and county planners are already beginning the 2016 comprehensive plan update, which will give the city another shot at the issue.
Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley and Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson were on opposite sides of the lawsuit — and neither were in office when the controversy began — but they both agree that the process will go smoother this time around with improved communication between planning departments.
“The process could have been handled better,” Johnson said. “We’re taking lessons from the past so we don’t have a repeat of what happened.”
Dudley said he was disappointed by the decision. He went to the April 19 hearing before Thurston County Judge Erik Price and said afterward that he was optimistic that the judge would rule in the city’s favor.
Tuesday, Dudley noted the judge acknowledged problems with communication between the county and city.
“The process is already a lot different,” he said. “We look forward to working with the county this time around.”
The underlying issue is whether the city should expand. The city’s proposal would have allowed for 400 new homes.
The Oak Harbor City Council approved the expansion of the UGA during the 2005 update and sent it on to the county to render a decision. The main rationale behind the proposed expansion was to accommodate growth in the city over 20 years. Members of the county planning commission felt that more room for homes would bring more affordable housing to the area.
City planning staff’s land-use analysis found that the city’s current UGA could accommodate the city’s projected 2025 population, plus an additional 6 percent. The proposed UGA expansion would grow that capacity to 126 percent, the staff estimated.
Island County planners initially issued “a mitigated determination of non-significance” for the UGA appeal, finding that it wouldn’t harm the environment as long as certain conditions were met.
The county later withdrew the determination after the city and a couple of environmental groups appealed. The issue lingered unresolved for years until city officials pushed county officials to take action in 2011.
The commissioners approved only the 18-acre expansion, concluding that city planners underestimated the amount of residential land already in the city and found there was no need for additional residentially zoned land.
Island County was represented in the lawsuit by Dan Mitchell, deputy prosecuting attorney. The city was represented by attorney Susan Drummond of Kirkland.