Freeland sewer board considers holding project indefinitely

By this time next week, the long debated Phase 1A Freeland sewer project may be on indefinite hold.

Freeland Water and Sewer District commissioners are scheduled to vote on a resolution that would freeze the project on the basis that it’s too expensive to move forward, according to proposal’s author, Commissioner Lou Malzone. And the reason?

“I’ve got cold feet,” he said.

Malzone plans to urge his fellow commissioners to put the brakes on the project for reasons ranging from the results of a rate study and ballooning project expenses to an open question mark about $3 million in requested state funding. The total project cost has risen from early estimates of about $9 million to nearly $12 million, and a finalized rate study released in January confirmed customers would pay a minimum of about $150 a month per unit of water used.

Malzone said this is Freeland’s third serious attempt at bringing sewers to the area, and each time it’s ended with the same result — a determination that the project is too expensive to justify.

“It just might be that to bring a sewer system to Freeland just isn’t financially feasible,” he said.

The district’s meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 13 at 5585 Lotto Avenue in Freeland.

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson is urging the district not to give up. She says she won’t, and vowed to continue working toward an “affordable solution.” She said throwing in the towel is not only the wrong decision, but simply not an option due to state requirements that mandate the creation of urban infrastructure in Freeland.

“I’m committed to finding a solution that’s affordable to users,” she said. “But, I don’t have the luxury of just saying, ‘We won’t do it.’ ”

In late December, the board agreed to temporarily halt all design work on the project when a draft of the rate study indicated users would see monthly charges of $150 per unit of water. That revelation was on top of ballooning total project costs associated with the district’s chosen effluent disbursement system — vadose zone wells.

Their lifespan was estimated at 12 years, but they may only last half that. The same technology used in Chandler, Ariz., was abandoned after just six years.

Meeting with state and county regulators, the district agreed to spend $200,000 on further testing to address another concern — infiltration rates — but scrubbed that plan last month when the final draft of the study was released.

According to Andy Campbell, water manager for the district, the $150 rate would be the best case scenario for average users. For heavy users, such as restaurants, the cost would skyrocket.

“Freeland Cafe could be $800 or $900 a month,” Campbell said.

To date, the district has spent three years and at least $1.6 million on the project. The district received $3.5 million in state grant funding in 2011, but has a deadline of July 2018 to spend the money. If it’s not complete or significant progress made, the remaining $1.6 million will have to be returned.

The district also secured $2.7 million in county grant money this past June; Malzone said he’s hopeful it will remain earmarked.

A request for $3 million in state capital funds remains undecided, though Price Johnson is optimistic the district will receive at least a portion of the money. She confirmed with Sen. Barbara Bailey’s office Friday that the grant is still under consideration.

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