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14 percent rate increase approved; county considers alternative San Juan solid waste transfer station site

The San Juan County Council is considering building a new solid waste transfer station on six acres it owns — commonly known as the Sundstrom property — near the existing solid waste transfer station.

On April 1, the Friday Harbor Town Council notified the San Juan County Council that it was withdrawing “for the time being” its offer to sell the property it now leases to the county for its solid waste transfer station and where the county had planned to build a replacement facility.

The Town Council said concern over a proposed county solid waste utility rate increase and the financial stability of the utility itself prompted its action.

In a special session Monday, the San Juan County Council dispatched a letter to the Friday Harbor Town Council saying it is “extremely disappointed” at the timing of the town’s “major policy change.”

The county, which faces an almost immediate Department of Ecology deadline to make expensive capital improvements at the existing transfer station responded, “’for the time being’ ... means to us that you are withdrawing the sale offer permanently. If this is not your intent then we need to immediately hear otherwise.”

According to the county’s response to the town, the solid waste utility had planned to take bids within 30 days on nearly $1 million in improvements on the town-owned property to meet state requirements to continue operating. The County Council’s letter also noted that the town’s decision came after the utility had spent more than $200,000 for site studies, risk assessments and the due diligence required to purchase property next to a closed landfill.

Based on the assumption that the town would not change its mind, the council showed some enthusiasm for building a new transfer station on the former Sundstrom property.

The council took public testimony on a proposal to redesignate that property from “Rural Agricultural” to “Rural Industrial” at its last meeting. If it votes to make the change at its April 27 meeting, the site’s zoning would be compatible with use as a transfer station.

Public Works Director Jon Shannon, participating in the discussion via telephone, told the County Council that there would be advantages to building on the Sundstrom site.

“The improvements that we’ve been designing for the current town property will still leave us with a very poor facility,” Shannon said. “It will be compliant, but it will still have all of the problems that led us to try to replace the facility back in 2002. The tipping floor is way too small and the traffic flow is terrible.”

He said the Sundstrom site could offer an opportunity. “The option to build a not only compliant, but operationally functional facility for the future is very important,” he said.

County Council member Rich Peterson, North San Juan, agreed. “I’m at the point ... where it doesn’t seem to me to be appropriate to spend money on a substandard site. It seems far wiser now to spend the money that we were going to spend to buy the site from the town, to build infrastructure on the Sundstrom property.”

The looming issue for the county’s solid waste utility is whether the Department of Ecology will allow it to continue handling solid waste in its existing facility without making improvements, while it builds a new tipping floor elsewhere.

The council retained two options for dealing with the possibility that Ecology does not grant an extension of its compliance deadline:

1. Move temporarily to curbside pickup with all waste ferried to the Orcas Island transfer station until the new facility is operational, or

2. Set up a “drop box” for self-haulers with small loads at the current transfer station site while commercial haulers and others with large loads go to Orcas Island for the interim.

The council voted not to consider a permanent switch to mandatory curbside trash pickup or re-siting the transfer station on a 26-acre tract of county-owned land on Beaverton Valley Road. The Beaverton Valley Road site had previously been the top contender for the transfer station, however, work to develop it for other county uses has moved forward since then.

In the end, most council members appeared resigned to proceeding without the town’s cooperation, though most wanted to leave that door open.

Howard Rosenfeld, who represents the town’s residents on the County Council, urged his colleagues to consider alternatives. He pointed out that the county’s current $10 per year lease on the transfer station property guarantees the right to a 20-year extension and would require the town to buy any improvements the county builds if it terminates the lease early.

With that in mind, he suggested the utility could go ahead and build the needed improvements.

“On a site that’s going to cost you $10 per year, and if the town terminates the lease then they have to pay fair market price for the improvements, I’d say that’s a pretty good deal,” Rosenfeld said.

Council Chairman Richard Fralick, Orcas West, disagreed. “I have a hard time with that as a business decision.”

The council today approved a proposed 14 percent increase in tipping fees and a new minimum $12 charge for self-haulers during its session on Tuesday. The increase is part of a multi-step process to put the Solid Waste Utility on a solid financial footing, ultimately making it less dependent on direct charges on haulers. The utility is currently facing a $700,000 deficit triggered by an increase in compliance costs and a sharp drop-off in the volume of solid waste it is handling, due primarily to a decrease in construction activity.

The complete text of the County Council’s letter to the Town Council is available at http://sanjuanco.com/docs/news/SJCReplyToTown040110.pdf.

The Town Council’s April 1 letter to the County Council is available at http://sanjuanco.com/docs/news/TownNoSaleLetter04012010.pdf.

Audio and video of the entire discussion is available at http://sanjuanco.com/council/video.aspx

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