A plan to form a local improvement district (LID) to finance a $40 million sewer system for Freeland was submerged for now by its own financial weight, officials acknowledge.
“It’s on hold indefinitely,” Freeland Water and Sewer District Commissioner Jim Short affirmed Thursday. He said the LID won’t be brought up again this year, and added: “It could be some time.”
Meanwhile, Short said the scheduled May 24 hearing to form the LID has been cancelled, and that commissioners will decide next week if either of two community informational meetings scheduled for earlier in May will be held.
The announcement that the LID is off was made at a community meeting in the Trinity Lutheran Church gym Tuesday night attended by nearly 200 people, many of whom applauded when water and sewer Commissioner Eric Hansen broke the news.
“It doesn’t mean the project is dead,” Hansen told the crowd. “But we’re not in a position to proceed with an LID at this time.”
He promised that the commissioners and district staff would continue to try to address the community’s “legitimate concerns.”
“We’re your neighbors,” Hansen said. “We’re listening to you.”
Short said Thursday that the decision was made to suspend the LID for two major reasons: A preliminary assessment done by the district’s consultant showed that the project would cost more than it’s worth under the current proposed financial structure, and that a groundswell of opposition among the owners of the 471 parcels involved is growing rapidly.
He said the preliminary assessment done by consultants Macaulay & Associates of Everett determined that, given the latest assessed value of the parcels, the area could support an LID of about $22 million.
The current plan asks property owners to pony up about $34 million, Short said.
“That’s a fairly large discrepancy,” he said. “We wanted to put the project on hold to determine how to handle that.”
He said the benefit analysis being conducted by the consultant also has been suspended, so a more detailed estimate of the cost to each property owner, promised for the May meetings, will remain undetermined.
“We wanted to take time to thoroughly investigate the issues, and to try to work with the community for better support,” Short said.
As for the opposition, members of Property Owners Opposed to Proposed Sewers (POOPS) vow to continue to solicit letters of protest against the project.
POOPS activist John Chaffins said Thursday that the group collected 119 protest letters in 10 days from property owners in the proposed LID area, about half the number of letters required to defeat LID formation.
By law, an LID is declared invalid if more than 40 percent of property owners protest.
“We’re glad the commissioners saw fit to do that,” Chaffins said of the suspension of the project. “We encourage them to dissolve the LID idea and rethink this whole problem.”
“It’s a victory,” agreed Marilynn Abrahamson, another POOPS member. “And it was totally unexpected.”
She said she received an additional dozen protest letters on Thursday, and that she too would continue to encourage the collection of others.
“I keep getting more and more in the mail every day,” said Abrahamson, who has lived on her third of an acre off Myrtle Avenue for 22 years. “It will be interesting to see what percentage are individual property owners, and what commercial.”
“They wanted a one-size-fits-all,” Abrahamson said of the current plan. “They should stick with what they have.”
Chaffins said that the current sewer plan would be especially hard on people who are content to live peacefully on their acre-or-larger parcels, but might be forced to move if they have to pay for multiple sewer hookups in a “best use of the property” format.
“Forcing people off their property just isn’t right,” Chaffins said. “That’s mean and cruel.”
District officials said the key to a satisfactory solution to the sewer problem is to attract more state and federal grants and low-interest loans.
Preliminary work on the project so far has been accomplished with about $5 million from Island County rural development funds and from the state Department of Ecology.
DOE has promised another $3.5 million in low-interest loans once an LID is set up.
Gary Hess, district engineer, said state and federal officials continue to express interest in the project, “although no promises have been made.”
“You do the best you can and move ahead,” Hess said, adding that the district will continue to press the agencies for financial support.
After Hansen’s announcement Tuesday night of the LID suspension, district staff members and consultants took the remainder of the meeting to review planning and funding information compiled so far, then took questions from the crowd.
Topics ranged from concerns about equity — between Phase 1 of the project, which would include building a treatment plant, and Phase 2, which would come online at a later date — to questions demanding proof that existing septic tanks are indeed damaging to Holmes Harbor.
Freeland resident Lou Malzone noted that the community of Belfair on Hood Canal received near total state and federal funding for its sewer project, and urged Freeland officials to work to do the same.
“Let’s get some heroes and lets get 90-percent funding,” Malzone said. “At the current level, I’ll pay more for sewers than I’d pay in property taxes.”
Another sewer opponent, Rick Delmonte, said he has urged the Washington State Attorney General’s Office to look into the entire sewer issue.
“There’s a huge disconnect,” Delmonte said, adding that everyone should beware of grant money.
“The only grant money that counts is money that touches your hand,” he said. “If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.”
Talk of a new sewer system for the Freeland area stretches back years, and proponents say it will allow further development in the South End’s main commercial hub, and help to clean up pollution in Holmes Harbor.
Freeland resident and former water commissioner Andy Pringle accused government at all levels of trying to tell the community what it should become, and said many residents would prefer to perpetuate Freeland’s rural character.
“We need to decide if we want to be a growth area,” Pringle said. “Kill this sewer system now, Freeland — it’s up to you.”
Others at the meeting Tuesday urged that the water and sewer commission be expanded from three to five members to better deal with the sewer issue.
“I think everybody would look favorably on that, at the right time,” Short said Thursday, “but it probably wouldn’t happen in the short term.”
Helen Price Johnson, Island County commissioner from the South End, acknowledged Tuesday night that the sewer issue — and the growth issue — are complex ones, and urged the community to persevere.
“It’s a difficult challenge,” she said. “Let’s work together.”
The next meeting of the Freeland Water and Sewer District commissioners will be at 5:45 p.m. Monday, April 11, in the conference room at Edwards & Associates, 5492 Freeland Ave.
Details of the proposed sewer plan also are available at www.freelandwsd.com.