Planning for Freeland sewer system halted

A decades-long effort to bring a sewer system to Freeland has halted “for the foreseeable future,” according to officials from the Freeland Water and Sewer District.

“The problems have always been there, and we tried to resolve them the best that we we could,” said Lou Malzone, president of the district. “The solution seems to be beyond the financial reach of the community.”

The district recently distributed a report that outlines the various methods it has researched and the reasons why the commissioners believe no feasible solutions exist. The report was given to the Island County Board of Commissioners, which feels it’s too early to throw in the towel.

“I think we need to get some more questions answered,” said county Commissioner Helen Price Johnson.

Some of those questions revolve around the potential of a deep-water marine outfall near Robinson Beach.

In February, Malzone sent an email to Island County Public Works Director Bill Oakes about permitting an outfall. The county has $2.7 million set aside for the Freeland sewer project, but a March 2017 report by a consultant states at least $5 million of additional grant funding would be necessary to “responsibly move forward” with the project. The district received $1.5 million from the state for the sewer, but plans didn’t include an outfall at the time, Malzone said.

The district’s report said an outfall to dispose of effluent would not meet one of the district’s goals, which is to recharge the aquifer by land application. The report also said the difficultly of obtaining a permit and high costs are reasons the method is not desirable.

However, last month the commissioners signed a contract for $19,000 for a consultant to research the feasibility of an outfall and determine if there would be any major roadblocks to its permitting and construction. The results of the study are due in five months.

“I don’t think we can draw a conclusion until we know what is possible and what isn’t,” county Commissioner Jill Johnson said during a meeting Wednesday.

The board decided to postpone a meeting with the district until the outfall study results are available. County Commissioner Rick Hannold, who previously expressed doubt about the feasibility of the project, said Wednesday he thought the district’s conclusions given in the report, are “premature.”

Malzone said he had asked the board how an outfall would be built, maintained and operated and “that question never got answered.”

“No one has talked about who’s going to pay for it,” he said.

The only scenario in which the project is feasible is if there’s 100 percent grant funding awarded, he said. Even then, projected monthly user costs would be around $120, according to the report.

Malzone said he’s disappointed because of the considerable effort put forth by both the district and the county, but said “this is just the reality of it.”

The county planning department is still in the process of updating code to reflect Freeland’s urban growth area designation.

The Growth Management Act, or GMA, requires that sewer service be provided to all urban areas that are already developed.

Under the GMA, development can occur with on-site septic systems when they are used as “a transitional strategy” if there is a development plan in place or where on-site septic systems are the best available technology for the circumstances.

Draft language in the Freeland development code allows for incremental growth in density that will only be increased if a sewer system is put in place.

Density will be capped at septic capacity until then. Malzone said it is up to the county commissioners to decide where to go. The commissioners said they hope to seek clarification from state agencies about where the responsibilities reside in moving forward.

Price Johnson said she remains optimistic there will be a path forward eventually, it’s just complicated.

“It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, is what it feels like,” she said. “We just don’t have all the colors lined up yet.”

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