Freeland city study passes first step with reluctant OK

Curt Gordon listens to Ron Nelson talk about a proposal to study details of Freeland incorporation.

Absolutely not. Well, maybe. OK fine, let’s send it to the Island County commissioners and let them figure it out.

That was the course of a turnaround discussion Wednesday by members of the Island County Council of Governments (or COG) about a proposal to fund a Freeland incorporation feasibility study. Despite just about every member giving reasons why it seemed liked a bad idea, the quorum of seven unanimously consented to move the proposal forward to the board for final consideration.

While it was hardly a resounding endorsement of the effort and certainly no guarantee of a green light, organizers said later the decision was better than nothing.

“It’s progress,” said Chet Ross, president of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce and one of the driving forces behind the request. Chet Ross, president of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce

Partnering with the Island County Economic Development Council (or EDC), of which Ross also serves on the organization’s board of directors, the chamber is seeking $70,000 to pay a private consulting firm to determine just what it would mean if Freeland became a city. Among a laundry list of questions, the study would identify details ranging from potential boundary lines and tax ramifications to government structure.

Ross and Ron Nelson, executive director of the EDC, presented the plan to a clearly wary council of governments. It was actually the second time members heard the request; Nelson made an initial proposal last month, but it was soundly rejected.

He was told to come back with more details, particularly an explanation of how the effort would flow with large and ongoing planning efforts, including the update of the county’s comprehensive plan and the Freeland Sub-area Plan. Both long range planning documents, the changes will resolve several substantial growth related issues, from redefining Freeland’s urban growth area boundaries to creating development regulations and a capital facilities plan.

Though the council’s May response was clear, and Ross said before Wednesday’s meeting that he’d worked on a new presentation to satisfy the voiced concerns, the same questions came up and council members appeared less than satisfied.

“My question still remains,” Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson said. “How can you make an economic feasibility study without knowing the boundaries?”

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard echoed those sentiments, saying there are certain things that should be determined before moving forward with such an effort.

“You can’t have an incorporation study until you know the details,” she said. “It’s like the sewers, people want to know what it’s going to cost.”

Similarly, Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson voiced strong concerns that launching an incorporation study now would “derail” the county’s current planning efforts. She’s been struggling to get them done for years, she said, and the deadline is June 2016. Incorporation is an old and controversial discussion, and people might zero in on that conversation, she said.

“If we were to move forward on this right now, my worry is the focus would be on incorporation,” Price Johnson said.

Ross disagreed, saying he believed the two efforts could move along in harmony and without conflict, that they “would probably come together very nicely” by the time both are concluded.

Nelson agreed, saying the consultant hired to perform the study on behalf of the EDC and the Freeland chamber could work in concert with the county’s planning department to ensure the end products didn’t conflict.

“I don’t see these things as exclusive, as an either or conversation,” Nelson said.

Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Curt Gordon joined the chorus of concerns from his colleagues, however, saying there appears to be “crossover” with other capital project efforts, namely sewers. The study effort is being championed as an economic development project, but many of the benefits Ross and Nelson claim might be realized through incorporation might be accomplished with a sewer system alone.

“Is this a sewer issue or a municipality issue?” Gordon said.

Nelson said it’s impossible to be “100 percent” sure about anything, but the goal of the study is to answer such questions with the assistance of professionals.

“We’re asking for experts to help us get these answers so we can make an informed decision,” Nelson said.

Unsatisfied, Gordon went on to quiz the EDC leader about an earlier “cryptic” comment Nelson made concerning handcuffed commercial growth.

“I know a very large business that’s interested in investing in Freeland, but it can’t because of a lack of infrastructure,” said Nelson, at the start of his presentation.

Nelson didn’t identify the business, citing privacy reasons. Though Gordon didn’t press, he asked if the infrastructure issue was sewers. Nelson acknowledged that it was.

“So when you brought that up as a city issue, it was really a sewer issue, wasn’t it?” Gordon said.

Johnson said she can understand the passion behind the incorporation effort, the desire for autonomy and self governance, but that the county has a “freight train moving to meet a June deadline,” which makes this a matter of timing. Price Johnson agreed, saying a discussion for Freeland incorporation may be in the future but this is a challenging time for the conversation.

Ross expressed frustration with the county’s reluctance to endorse the incorporation movement, saying officials over and over stall forward progress.

“We’ve been told by the county since 2007, every year, that timing is wrong,” Ross said. “The timing is always wrong.”

He noted in a later interview that it’s not just him driving the effort for incorporation; the chamber’s board of directors voted unanimously last year for him to propose the study.

Ross also told COG members that it’s unlikely the entire $70,000 requested would be needed. Estimates are between $45,000 and $55,000, he said. It would take about four months to complete.

The news raised the eyebrows of Johnson, who said that allotting more than is needed raises questions. She also addressed a question by Nelson, who’d asked if people outside of Freeland would be able to weigh in during incorporation and comprehensive planning discussions. That also seemed to take Johnson by surprise. She assured Nelson that they would, as they are residents of Island County and have a rightful say about Whidbey’s future.

“We call that open government,” Johnson said.

Although the council seemed dead set against the idea, largely for timing reasons, Johnson proposed moving the issue forward to the commissioners strictly so additional conversation could be had, particularly with county planners. They might shed light on whether a study could move forward without significant interruption of the ongoing planning effort.

The decision was supported with a 7-0 vote.