Justin Burnett/The Record — Freeland Water and Sewer District Commissioner Eric Hansen answers a question during an informational meeting about the district’s sewer plan Monday.

Future of Freeland sewers still in doubt

Freeland Water and Sewer District commissioners wanted feedback, and they got it.

On Monday, downtown core property and business owners responded to the board’s invitation to weigh in on the district’s $12.9 million sewer project largely without reservation. Some were clearly against the proposal, others were ready to get started.

“I just think the whole thing is too expensive for the benefit,” said Bill Lewis, a phase 1A property owner.

“I’m at the end [of the project boundary area],” echoed Jack Petosa, owner of Petosa Corner on Scott Road. “Just cut me off, I’m OK with it.”

Both lamented the high cost of the project, particularly when it came to monthly rates, which at best would be $114 per equivalent residential unit (ERU) of wastewater used — about 140 gallons.

At the other end of the spectrum, several said they were prepared to shoulder the expense.

“It’s the cost of business,” said Petite Bryant-Hunt, owner of Freeland Cafe.

Others expressed support for the project as well, but an impromptu vote of the approximately 15 property owners present indicated that a majority appeared to be against moving forward. While that represents only a fraction of the 80 property owners in Freeland’s phase 1A sewer project area, Commissioner Eric Hansen was happy with both the turnout and the unvarnished opinions.

“This was great,” Hansen said. “I’m really pleased.”

The meeting was held specifically to hear from stakeholders, the business and property owners who will shoulder the cost of bringing sewers downtown for decades to come. Things are not going well, and the board wanted to brief them on the project’s current status and the challenges ahead.

The sewer effort is in a temporarily quagmire from a bevy of unknowns. First, the 24-acre property the district purchased in 2015 to house a new sewer treatment plant and disperse treated effluent is now in question. The site’s mixed geology may not be able to drain the 77,000 gallons a day needed for the commercial core.

An infiltration test is about to begin to answer the question of whether or not the property is suitable.

Secondly, even if the property will work, the lifespan of the district’s chosen means of draining effluent back into the ground with vadose zone wells is uncertain. They are planned to last a dozen years, but there’s widespread concern on the board that they won’t last half that. It’s important because the wells are pricey, and replacement timelines affect monthly and long-term costs to district ratepayers.

Basic project funding is another big unknown. The current plan banks on receiving a $1.5 million state grant which, combined with $6.2 million in grants already secured, would level the funding gap at about $5 million. That’s what is needed just to build the sewers, not operate them over the long term.

Based on a recent rate study, the board now seems unanimous that only a project fully funded by grants would be affordable to ratepayers, and that the only realistic source is the county’s rural economic development pot, also known as .09 funds.

The rate study indicated that rates of a fully funded project would still top the highest in the state — by far.

That’s a lot of unknowns, and district commissioners recognize that the next few months will be telling.

“There’s a couple of things that have to happen in a very short time here,” said Commissioner Lou Malzone, in a later interview with The Record.

And some, such as the viability of the site and wells, will quickly determine the fate of the entire project.

“If they don’t work, we’re dead,” he said.

Similarly, if the project isn’t fully grant funded, ratepayers could be looking at monthly charges of up to $278 per ERU. Businesses that use lots of water, some more than 20 ERUs a month, would see bills in the thousands of dollars.

But even if all the stars line up and everything that’s hoped for comes to pass, the commissioners all agree that at the end of the day property owners would still be strapped with the highest rates in the state. And that’s the best case scenario.

Commissioner John Brunke said he left the meeting no clearer about the path forward than before. Getting feedback from stakeholders was important and he wants to hear from more, but he left with the same questions he walked in with, questions such as “Where are we going, is this going to fly or not?”

He’s also wondering what happens next. Even if the phase 1A project is completed, how could the board ever hope to complete phase 1B, which would expand sewers north to other commercial parts of town?

“I keep wondering, ‘Where do we go?’” Brunke said. “Even if we get 1A, what happens after that?” he said.

Hansen said another unknown with phase 1A that hasn’t been recently discussed is the addition of the Main Street Sewer District, which serves Maple Ridge. The estimated rates assume the district will merge with the Freeland district, but there are no guarantees that will happen.

“That’s a big if,” Hansen said.

What the board will ultimately decide remains to be seen, but none appear to believe the project is an absolute no-go. Malzone said at Monday’s meeting that he would likely support moving ahead if the project were fully funded, that the district has come too far to turn back now.

“It would be fairly irresponsible not to [move forward] at that point,” Malzone said.

Hansen said expense can’t be ignored, but that the district also has state Growth Management Act responsibilities to consider and the protection of its nearby drinking water wells; sewers would decrease nitrates in the aquifer associated with septic systems. Public opinion is important, but how far does it go?

“Is this just a popularity contest or does the board have a higher responsibility?” he asked.

Brunke said he needs more information from property owners, specifically how the high costs will affect them over the long term.

“I don’t have a feeling of the impact, and I need to know what that is,” he said.

On the need for additional feedback, the board is in agreement. It has to hear from stakeholders. The commissioners are considering several methods of doing so, from taking an informal poll or vote to holding additional meetings. Brunke said the board had even considered sending an example bill, indicating what would be owed based on current usage and a message at the bottom saying, “Are you in or out?”

Hansen said another public meeting is a certainty, but the next gathering will be in the evening rather than during the day.