Freeland water district to spend $800,000 on property

Freeland Water and Sewer District commissioners went all-in Friday when they agreed to spend $800,000 on a 24-acre property for a sewer treatment plant.

The board voted unanimously to purchase the undeveloped lot from Jerry Stonebridge after discussing its permit potential with state and county regulators in a meeting Friday evening. Though the panel offered some warnings about possible problems down the road, they were in agreement that the property does not appear to present any immediate show stoppers that would make it ineligible for the district’s intended use.

Combined with due diligence performed this summer, the feedback was the green light the board has waited for and wasted no time calling for a vote. Commissioners Eric Hansen, Lou Malzone and John Brunke all voted to move forward with the purchase.

Funding for the property comes from $3.5 million in state grant funding. It was secured years ago during earlier efforts to provide sewers to the greater Freeland area. They failed, largely due to cost and scope. The district has since scaled back their sewer infrastructure hopes, targeting their immediate efforts on the commercial core. Later phases would encompass residential areas yet to be identified, per long-range planning documents.

The new property, which is located directly across Highway 525 from Harbor Avenue, will house a treatment plant and the system’s drain fields. Phase 1 is projected at $9.9 million. Minus the state grant money, that leaves a funding gap of $6.5 million, about $1.3 million of which is expected to be picked up by commercial core property owners.

Friday’s meeting, which was a continuation of the commissioners’ regular monthly meeting Sept. 14, sought primarily to put all the different permitting voices in one room and establish who might have objections before the commissioners committed to buying the property. Those present included officials from the state’s Department of Health and Department of Ecology, and the county’s health and planning departments.

One of the primary issues discussed revolved around water quality, particularly concerning the site’s close proximity to the district’s wells. Ginny Stern, a hydrogeologist with state health, said nitrates are the most common problem, but that contaminants such as personal care products, endocrine disruptors (chemicals that, at certain doses, can interfere with the endocrine or hormone system in mammals) and pharmaceuticals can be headaches as well.

The drain fields discharge into the aquifer, and because it’s within the district’s wellhead capture zone Stern warned there’s a potential for recycling. She made it clear that the issue wasn’t a death sentence for the project, but that they are risks the district needs to consider.

“This is not a hand grenade,” she said.

In a later interview, Stern noted that the district’s planned use of vadose wells to expedite drainage make the project unique and another factor in the recycling contaminants concern. The district hired Seattle-based Pacific Groundwater Group this summer to perform hydrogeology tests. They largely focused on drainage rates, and the vadose wells were deemed necessary as they get water down to more permeable layers faster. The study revealed the site would work for phase 1, but later phases may require the district to purchase other properties.

Keith Higman, director of Island County Public Health, echoed Stern’s comments, saying flow models by his department indicated that a “closed loop” was possible in some circumstances. He also said it wasn’t a stop sign, however, but something to watch for and study. A comprehensive hydrogeologic investigation would likely be required by the state, he said.

“I don’t think any of these things are show stoppers,” said Higman, but they do represent the long-term risks and potential mitigation costs of sewers in Freeland.

Commissioner Lou Malzone said nitrates have always been a headache. A sewer system will only improve water quality, making what’s already going into the aquifer via private septic systems “a heck of a lot cleaner.”

“I see it as a benefit,” he said.

He also made the case that such contaminants have been going into the aquifer for decades and the wells continue to operate within state standards. This will only make things better, he said.

Neither the state nor county health agencies will issue permits for the project, but they do have some purview over the district’s drinking water. The primary permitting departments are the state Department of Ecology and Island County Planning and Community Development. Neither Chris Martin, a hydrogeologist with the state’s water quality program, nor county planning chief Dave Wechner voiced significant objections during Friday’s meeting, giving district commissioners the reasonable assurances they requested to move forward.

The board went into executive session for about 15 minutes to discuss the property acquisition. Upon reconvening, they approved the purchase.