Staff photo/Hayley Day Councilmen Rick Hughes and Jamie Stephens listen during the Jan. 24 San Juan County Council meeting.

County council discusses affordable housing, Lopez hospital district

At the Jan. 24 San Juan County Council meeting, updates were given on plans to ensure affordable housing in the county, as well as the creation of a hospital district on Lopez.

Affordable Housing

Mark Thompkins, director of San Juan County Health and Community Services, presented council with a draft plan to ensure affordable housing in the county. The plan was designed by the county’s task force assigned to look at the issue, early last year.

“Today there is a deficiency in our affordable housing supply,” read Thompkins from the plan’s vision.

The draft plan’s vision includes creating safe housing options for those who work seasonally or full time, or who are on a fixed income. It includes three strategies and the tasks needed to complete them, as well as who would be in charge of the tasks and their completion dates. Those in charge of implementation include the San Juan County Housing Bank Commission, Department of Community Development and the county manager.

Strategy one is to educate the public on housing accessibility and affordability. This includes disseminating the work group’s frequently asked question document about the topic. Thompkins said it will be released soon if approved at the Housing Bank’s Feb. 15 meeting. The strategy also includes two separate analyses of land and housing needs by the Department of Community Development. They will be completed by June, according to Erika Shook, director of the department, as part of the county’s update to the comprehensive plan.

The remaining strategies would be implemented over the next two years, according to the draft plan.

Strategy No. 2 is to increase availability and affordability of county housing, by completing tasks like regulating vacation rentals with annual permit fees and developing housing units on publicly owned land.

The third strategy is to maintain existing affordable housing, by passing affordable housing funding measures (like having the county purchase available units), as well as expanding home repair programs.

The draft includes six types of units needed, based on renters’ or buyers’ income. The first priority is long-term rentals for those earning $15 to $20 per hour.

Councilman Rick Hughes asked how these were prioritized without an inventory of affordable housing in the county. Thompkins said a housing inventory is difficult to assess because waitlists for rentals vary based on season and there is no regulatory program to track long-term rentals.

“There are no hard and fast numbers,” said Thompkins to council. “We didn’t like prioritizing, but we felt it was necessary.”

Councilman Rick Hughes suggested a voluntary survey by the community could help. If you live in or rent affordable housing units, contact Hayley Day at The Journal at hday@sanjuanjournal.com or 378-5696 to help with the collection.

Thompkins will present the draft plan to the housing bank commission at their Feb. 15 meeting. By late February, Thompkins will present the revised plan to council. If approved, the commission will lead the task owners on projects and update council on progress.

“This is the easy part; the hard is implementing it,” said Thompkins.

Councilman Rick Hughes said he and Shook will present amendments to the county’s vacation rental ordinance in about a month. Shook said the draft would be released to the public and meetings to discuss it would be scheduled for late February.

To view the draft plan, visit www.sanjuanco.com/1077/County-Council and click the Jan. 24 meeting link.

Lopez hospital district

Representatives of the Catherine Washburn Medical Association updated council on their search for a health care partner for the Lopez Island Medical Clinic. On Jan. 10, the association presented council with almost double the 220 signatures needed to add the creation of a Lopez Island public hospital district on the April 25 ballot to help offset costs of operating the clinic with a partner hospital.

Vice chairwoman of the association Christa Campbell said there is one possible partner left from the three they presented to council at the Jan. 10 meeting. If that partner does not work, the clinic will work to become independent. They are currently pursuing both options.

“Our hope is by mid-February, we have a decision whether there is a viable partner,” said Campbell to council. “If that comes back as a negative or undecided then by March 1, we’ll launch the pathway to independence.”

In mid-September, Island Hospital officials reported the service contract to run the Lopez Island Medical Clinic will end on June 30. Island Hospital has operated the clinic since the 1990s, while the Catherine Washburn Medical Association has owned the building since the 1970s.

Association board member Lauren Stephens said the representatives of the association requested an extension from Island Hospital until the end of the year.

“Without an extension, we would close at the end June,” said Stephens. “It is critical for continuous operations of our clinic to get this extension.

Initially, the hospital was against the extension, said Stephens, but senior health care advisor to Governor Inslee talked to Island Hospital officials at association representatives’ requests.

“We are feeling slightly more optimistic,” said Stephens to council.

Campbell explained that 150 people attended a Jan. 22 public discussion about the hospital district formation on Lopez. Many questioned how the association’s duties would differ from the district’s. Campbell said the district commission would contract a rental agreement with the association.

“We foresee the association being around indefinitely,” said Campbell to The Journal.

Campbell said others at the Jan. 22 meeting felt they were writing a “blank check” if the measure includes the highest taxable amount by the state to fund the hospital district — $.75 per $1,000 of assessed Lopez property. Since the amount of money needed for the district is unknown, said Campbell, the tax needed for collection is as well. Rather than request a smaller amount, and later need more, the association is requesting a broad figure. The district’s commission will decide if that is needed, or if it will be lowered.

“The district’s needs may be greater than a number we choose at random to make the measure popular,” said Campbell to The Journal.

A public hearing will be held on Feb. 10 at Grace Episcopal Church on Lopez. At the close of that meeting or a few days later, council will decide if they approve the measure to be on the April ballot.