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Cold feet on farmers market site; Town Council uneasy with easements, limitations
The Friday Harbor Town Council on Thursday agreed to stay the course in the proposed purchase of the Friday Harbor Electric Co. site, touted as the future location of a year-round farmers market and public town square.
But the council may not stay the course for long.
The council fell just one vote shy of pulling out of purchase negotiations following a presentation by Town Attorney Don Eaton regarding risks the town would face should it become the owner of that property.
As proposed, the town would spend $375,000 of lodging tax money to purchase the site and the San Juan County Land Bank would contribute $400,000 for conservation and historical preservation easements. The property would be leased to the San Juan Island Agricultural Guild, which would renovate the site to the tune of about $162,000, and sublease it to various vendors.
The risks, however, along with a pending Dec. 18 deadline for a decision by the town, prompted Councilman Noel Monin to call for a vote that would end the town’s participation in the project. Monin said the council is being forced to fast-track a decision despite many uncertainties surrounding the project — and at a time when next year’s budget was balanced on town employee furloughs and by eliminating funding for required certification, inspection and upgrade of firefighting gear.
“We can’t afford the risk right now,” Monin said.
Councilwoman Carrie Brooks agreed, adding that any contribution by the Land Bank will come with strings attached.
“I’m just saying that it’s not the gift it looks like,” said Brooks, who, along with Monin, voted to back out of negotiations.
According to Eaton, the town, the Land Bank and the Ag Guild have been eager but hard-pressed to find a solution in recent weeks. They have yet to strike a deal in which all parties are satisfied with the degree of risk each would bear.
Eaton said the property and its historic building would be “encumbered” by various restrictions that limit the degree of development and amount of activity that can occur at the site. That’s because the Land Bank, he said, would be buying two restrictive easements, one on the building and one on the “green space” portion of the property, that would remain in place in perpetuity.
The building on the site was the original home of the Boede Cement Co., which manufactured cement blocks used in the construction of several downtown heritage buildings, including Town Hall.
At a forum Nov. 19, some residents expressed concern that if the farmers market project fails economically, use of the site would be limited and the town would be saddled with unsellable property.
Thursday, Eaton also said it’s unclear as to the nature and the extent of activities which would need to take place for an investment of town lodging tax money to pass muster with the state auditor. The fund can be used only on projects that meet state criteria as a “tourist-related facility” and, he noted, the town would be required to reimburse that fund if the property fails to meet the state’s criteria.
By itself, Eaton said, a permanent farmers market is clearly not enough to meet state requirements. He’s not sure what uses would satisfy the state that it’s a tourist-related facility.
“We don’t know how much that is and we’re not confident we’ll have a definitive answer of what that is by Dec. 17,” he said.
Nevertheless, the council voted 4-1, Brooks included, to be given a staff report and recommendation on Dec. 17 before reaching its final decision.
Councilwoman Carrie Lacher said the risks are unsettling and that they can’t be ignored. Still, she said it would be premature for the council to pull out of negotiations and scuttle a project that could revitalize the downtown core and lay the foundation for a public town square.