Island, Freeland business leaders seek funding for incorporation study

The old drumbeat of Freeland incorporation will be heard anew this week, this time before the Island County Council of Governments.

Lobbying for money on behalf of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce, an official with the Island County Economic Development Council (or EDC) is set to make a presentation to the council of governments at the body’s next monthly meeting in Coupeville. The organizations are requesting $70,000 for a feasibility study that would examine financial, geographical and logistical aspects of incorporation.

The meeting is 9 a.m. Wednesday, June 24 in the Commissioners Hearing Room, 1 NE 6th St.

The idea behind the study, according to Ron Nelson, executive director for the EDC, is to gather facts about what it would mean if Freeland became a city, facts that would give residents an accurate picture about everything from taxes and government structure to boundaries and the potential for growth and development.

“That’s what this study is about, getting all that information together,” Nelson said.

The EDC is seeking rural economic development funds, commonly referred to as .09 money — a percentage of county sales tax returned to Island County from the state specifically for economic development projects. Organizations apply for the funds through the council of governments (or COG), a group of representatives from a host of island municipalities and junior taxing districts. It acts in an advisory capacity to the county commissioners, making recommendations and forwarding them to the board for final approval.

If awarded the money, the EDC would contract out the study to a private consulting firm selected through a request for proposals.

Timing might make the request a tough sell, however. Nelson made an initial proposal to COG in April, but it received a cold reception; it was sent back with a request for additional information, such as about how the effort would coincide with ongoing and major planning efforts.

According  to  Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, a member of the COG, it was unclear whether the study would launch right away and precede the conclusion of the county’s comprehensive plan update and a revision of the Freeland Sub-area Plan. Those long-range documents will hammer out big issues, such as area boundaries, densities, building regulations and a capital facilities plan.

“Those have been my concerns (about the proposal) and that’s what I’ll be looking for when I review it again,” Price Johnson said.

The commissioner said she understands the mission, but her primary focus at the moment is seeing the larger planning efforts completed.

“That’s my priority,” she said.

Chet Ross, president of the Freeland chamber, said he’s worked closely with Nelson to fine tune the proposal and is confident they’ve adequately addressed the concerns. The chamber’s role in the request is limited by rules associated with rural economic development money — it’s driving the train for the proposal, but between the two organizations the EDC is the one eligible to apply for the money.

“The chamber has no standing to apply for .09 funds,” Ross said.

Also a member of the EDC’s board of directors, Ross is perhaps one of Freeland’s greatest champions for incorporation. He has aspirations to be the prospective city’s first mayor and believes a factual study will dispel fears about increased taxes and additional government.

“It’s not adding layers of government, it’s replacing one with another — county government with city government,” Ross said.

He maintains that many required municipal services could be satisfied with little change, such as contracting with the Island County Sheriff’s Office for police — like Coupeville does — and with South Whidbey Fire/EMS for firefighters — like Langley.

Incorporation is about retaining greater local control and leveling the playing field in terms of sales tax, as Freeland is the heavy-weight contributor for rural county areas yet receives disproportionate returns, Ross said.

He acknowledges that not everyone is so enthusiastic about becoming a city. Among chamber members, most support the idea but some want more information and others are adamantly against it, he said. And that’s just a single demographic. Support among residential property owners is less clear, though the group already has vocal critics of both incorporation and Ross himself.

“My primary concern is it will empower people like Chet Ross,” said Lew Randall, president of Freeland Advocates for Informed Responsible Solutions (or FAIRS). “I don’t want him to be mayor.”

Randall said he lost confidence in Ross and other area leaders following their roles in the controversial and failed “$40 million sewer” effort, and he worries that a future city would indeed result in additional layers of bureaucracy and government. Freeland is nice the way it is, he said, and clean water challenges and other issues make it an unsuitable place for intense development.

He called this Ross’ “hobby horse” and, despite clear opposition, he and other proponents will continue to try and sell incorporation until it succeeds.

“If there wasn’t a lot of opposition, it would have happened a long time ago,” Randall said.

“None of the residents want it.”