Counterpoint: Annexation is not necessary right now

By Michael Mayes

The Gray & Osborne Infrastructure Study gave us 52 million good reasons to look at alternatives to annexation of additional residential land into the Town of Friday Harbor.

The Town of Friday Harbor currently has enough residential zoned land to both satisfy the county’s long-term affordable housing needs and provide entry-level homes for working islanders. With minimal creativity, we can meet the projected housing demands of the Growth Management Act without expanding the town’s boundaries one inch.

This can be done at a fraction of the $52 million of infrastructure costs cited in the “San Juan County GMA Infrastructure Feasibility Study,” a study which the county paid $132,000 for.

Under current zoning regulations, maximum number of homes which can be built in Friday Harbor is 2,219. In our town’s first 100 years of history, we have produced a total of just under 1,000 residences. This means that only 45 percent of our existing residential development rights have been used in 100 years.

It is important to remember that these 1,219 unbuilt development rights do not go away when new residential land is annexed into town. If the town annexed all the residential land in the expanded UGA area, it would add another 1,384 potential housing units to our little town.

At our 100-year average of 10 units of housing built per year, this would produce enough home sites for a 260-year supply of housing.

Our town water and sewer systems have a limited capacity. Adding even the 330 new development rights proposed in Phase I of the UGA expansion creates the very real possibility that the town will run out water or sewer hookups and existing town property owners will be unable to build on properties in the future.

Is it right to dump the financial burden of the entire county’s housing needs on a town of 2,000 people?

The San Juan Community Home Trust will tell you that they will pay for the infrastructure on their proposed 15.5-acre building site at the end of Grover Street. This may be true, but what they don’t pay for are the off-site infrastructure costs which arise as a result of their proposed development. They also don’t pay for the town’s soft costs such as increased costs of Sheriff’s Department services, street cleaning, weed abatement, domestic violence prevention, etc.

Additionally, once the project is completed, the on-site infrastructure which they pay for becomes the town’s responsibility to maintain. Is it really wise to take responsibility for more infrastructure maintenance when we can’t afford to maintain what we already have?

Is it right for special-interest groups to gain access to town utilities when the current town water service can’t provide sufficient water pressure to residential lots on University Road?

The current town water system still lacks sufficient pressure to serve approximately 16 acres of residential land with about 200 unbuilt multi-family development rights. There is not money in the town budget for a $1.2M +/- infrastructure project. Repairing existing infrastructure has taken a higher priority. If there is no money to provide proper water service to properties already inside the town limits, how can there be money available to expand the town?

Affordable housing is the carrot being dangled before Town Council members to justify the push for unneeded annexation, but the economics make absolutely no sense. Clearly, we do not need more land for market rate housing, so the Buck annexation is being done for the sole purpose of creating affordable housing. This is an admirable goal, but the cost is too high.

The proposed annexation of the Buck property accounts for only 23.8 percent of the land included in the Gray & Osborne study. Even so, taken as a straight percentage 23.8 percent of $52 million is still $14,560,000, or a whopping $121,333 of infrastructure cost per affordable home being proposed.

Even if you could successfully argue that only one-tenth of the $52 million of projected infrastructure costs ($5.2 million) would be caused by the annexation of the Buck property, it would still cost the town $43,333 for each potential affordable-home building site being proposed.

For $30,000 per home site, the Home Trust could purchase more land than they need. There would then be no need to raise water and sewer hookup fees to pay for costly annexation infrastructure, thus keeping it less expensive to build affordable homes in town.

Several weeks ago, I met with Home Trust Director Nancy DeVaux to discuss my concerns about annexation. I suggested that I may be able to come up with a better offer than what they are looking at with the Buck property.

She asked me how they could do better than free land? At that time, I told her I was not convinced that their “free” land wouldn’t end up costing more than if they just went out and bought existing property in town. It appears that this will be the case: $3 million could buy improved, ready-to-build land in town for 100 affordable homes.

Using existing land in town would minimize a non-profit’s development costs and eliminate the burden on town residents since existing town infrastructure could be used. This would also greatly diminish the cost of new affordable housing and could save town ratepayers millions and millions of dollars.

The Home Trust has repeatedly promised that their project would be done at no cost to the public. I am interested to see how they plan to keep this promise.

Fortunately, there is another way. If the town, the county, non-profit housing groups and private sector would work together we can come up with alternative solutions to costly annexation schemes.

There is a more economical and less wasteful approach which we can take. By utilizing existing land and buildings already within the town’s borders we can meet our housing needs for the next 100 years without further burdening the people who can least afford increased utility costs.

The opportunity to annex land into the town will continue to be there if we wait until a more appropriate time when additional land is actually needed. There is far too much money to be made by annexing county land into the town for this opportunity to go away. If you give people an opportunity to increase the value of their land tenfold, they will jump at the chance. Most people would settle for a much lower rate of return.

Rushing into the biggest land-use decision in 100 years because a non-profit’s grant may or may not expire is horrible public policy. I urge you to contact your Town Council members and tell them it is time slow down and to look at “Plan B,” or anything other than what the town is being force fed.

The time for annexation will come, but it is not now. We don’t need it and we can’t afford it.

Annexation is a horrible deal for the people of Friday Harbor. Let’s come up with a better solution.

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