Island County is tackling the complex subject of transitioning a rural commercial district into a city — namely Freeland.
Currently categorized as a Non Municipal Urban Growth Area, or NMUGA, some Freeland residents have long hoped to expand its infrastructure or go so far as to incorporate. Their efforts have stalemated over the years due to a lack of resources and funding. Some have blamed the county for not facilitating the process.
“I’d like to compliment the planning department but I certainly can’t do that yet,” said Freeland property owner Al Peyser at a public hearing last month on the Comprehensive Plan update due in 2016.
“I have worked on committees for 20 years trying to plan things for Freeland and I can say that every single hour I put in was a total waste of time. We have planned over and over, and Freeland doesn’t have a single sidewalk. Freeland is simply an orphan. It doesn’t have any speech, it doesn’t have comments. It’s ignored.”
Peyser also said the county’s planning department has been “cold” to Freeland, Clinton and Bayview, commercial areas that he says, “seem to be left out of this discussion.”
“It seems very complex, but Freeland is very active I would like to see a lot more friendliness in this whole operation,” Peyser said.
As one of the first steps in a periodic update of the Comprehensive Plan, the county approved an updated version of their countywide planning policies after an April 21 public hearing. The approval kicked off a 60-day public comment period where the county accepts community feedback on potential policy changes.
“The challenge you see in Freeland is what we’re trying to avoid in the future through these policies,” said Island County Long Range Planner Brad Johnson.
Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said that while she believes county staff had identified a number of issues that need to be addressed concerning UGAs within the county-wide planning policies, Freeland’s unique situation merits additional attention.
“One of the first issues you heard from me when this first came to work session is we need to find a way to understand this for Freeland because they are a different group,” Price Johnson said. “There was no discussion with Freeland because they are not a municipality. I need to reiterate that there needs to be a work group established for Freeland.”
“I’m looking to let the folks of Freeland move forward in a way that’s going to help the folks of Freeland within the Growth Management Act.”
Commissioner Jill Johnson said she wanted to make sure that any policies put in place for Freeland needed to be applicable to all UGAs and the Joint Planning Areas that surround them county wide.
“This is an area that needs to be looked at because there are consequences for urban development,” Johnson said.
In efforts to remove barriers to Freeland’s and other areas’ ability for growth, commissioners agreed to strike two sentences from the approved Countywide Planning Policies which read: “Waivers or variances should only be granted to serve existing development or to permit the development of single-family homes on existing lots. Waivers or variances shall not be used to permit land division or the establishment of new non-residential uses.”
“I think we need to look at it a little bit differently, make sure we are looking at it through the lens to provide maximum GMA flexibility that meets requirements and really the reality of the constraints that Freeland’s NMUGA is faced with,” Price Johnson said.
Freeland Chamber of Commerce Director Chet Ross, who has championed a push for incorporation, said last week that some counties have paid for UGAs to go through the process of becoming a city.
He said that Island County should “very definitely” foot the bill in this case, as opposed to leaving it up the municipality or its water and sewer district.
A previous version of this story misstated the views of Freeland Water and Sewer District Commissioner Lou Malzone. They have been removed.