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Room to grow: Town Council gives conditional OK to Buck property annexation

The stage is set for Friday Harbor to grow.

The Town Council on Thursday tentatively approved annexation of the Buck property, a 48-acre parcel on the southeast side of town and the future home, as proposed, of a mixed neighborhood of 240 market-rate and permanently affordable homes.

In a 4-1 decision, the council agreed to annex the property under terms of a recently-crafted development agreement that shifts the burden of paying for infrastructure improvements, such as sewer, stormwater and roads, away from the town and onto the property owners.

That agreement came to the council with the endorsement of town staff members, the town attorney, the Buck and Boreen families and their development partner, the San Juan Community Home Trust.

If the property is annexed, the trust intends to build 120 affordable homes, in phases, on 15.5 acres it will acquire from the Buck family.

Councilwoman Carrie Lacher said the annexation will allow the town to retain its small-town atmosphere while the agreement can serve as a model for better management of future growth. The Buck property, she said, will be developed one way or another and, at some time, the town will have to grow.

"I feel the issue comes down to do we want to densify, or do we want to expand the town boundaries and grow outward," Lacher said. "I think the best thing we can do is manage growth, horizontally, and not densify, and not go up and not fill up every lot in town."

Not everyone on the council was convinced. Despite protections and financial contributions called for in the agreement, like a $300,000 donation for upgrade of the Argyle Avenue and Grover Street intersection, Councilwoman Carrie Brooks said the agreement does not go far enough.

Brooks, who cast the lone dissenting vote, believes the town deserves more.

"I just think the citizens of Friday Harbor ought to be getting something for this," Brooks said. "Because this is not just an affordable housing project, this is a commercial development that's asking for annexation. I haven't seen enough that we get of great benefit to be able to satisfy me."

Several hurdles still need to be cleared before annexation is complete. The property cannot be annexed, according to Town Attorney Don Eaton, without land-use zones in place. The council will weigh in on the zoning issue when Thursday's public hearing is reconvened on May 21 at Town Hall, beginning at 5:35 p.m.

Furthermore, a clause in the agreement requires state approval for construction and operation of an on-site sewage system. As proposed, the so-called modular system produces wastewater suitable for irrigation and can be expanded over time as needed. The property owners will have 180 days to gain approval of the state Department of Health once the annexation is complete. Without it, however, the agreement, and the annexation, are null and void.

Initially, town officials sought $5 million for an upgrade of the town's wastewater treatment plant to meet the demands of the neighborhood planned for the Buck property. The project, according to Vincent Buck, would not be feasible at that price.

Though she voted for annexation, Councilwoman Liz Illg criticized the Bucks, Boreens and leaders of the Home Trust for "opting out" of hooking up to the town's sewer system, helping to shoulder the cost of its improvements and pursuing an agreement in which a sewage system would be built and operated on the property instead.

"It feels like you want the benefit of being in the town without paying the cost," Illg said. "It makes me very uncomfortable to look long term, and make a decision for the good of the town based on the expediency of this solution and I'm very unhappy with the proposal on that level."

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