Opinion

Annexation should not impact ratepayers | Editorial

Proponents laid out some good reasons Nov. 20 for the town to annex the Buck property. The most compelling argument came from those who said that, without affordable housing, they may have to move off the island.

One single mom, whose valuable time is divided between parenthood, job and studies, said she doesn’t have 35 hours a week to give to Homes for Islanders’ sweat-equity home-ownership program. She hopes to buy a home through the San Juan Community Home Trust’s program.

Town residents also gave a compelling argument against annexation — not against affordable housing, but annexation — saying that the cost of adding a proposed 240-home community to the town’s water and sewer systems would boost utility rates to even more unaffordable levels.

It’s not fair, one resident said, to make affordable housing available to one segment of the community and make it unaffordable, in the form of higher utility rates, to residents who already live within the town limits.

We do not believe the proponents of annexation have proven that annexation is necessary to meet Friday Harbor’s affordable-housing needs. But we also believe, if real estate history is our guide, that there

will likely be a need for more affordable housing in the coming 20-plus years and the availability of more land for such development will only help that effort.

Here’s our position: The Buck family, which owns the land in question, and the Town of Friday Harbor should work out a development agreement that ensures that the infrastructure costs will not negatively impact utility rates for existing town residents.

Annexation is not necessary, and if this neighborhood-to-be wants to be a part of the community, it should pay its fair share.

“Fair share,” in our view, means the Buck family and the Home Trust, which will acquire 15.5 acres from the Buck family via a donor, should pay all infrastructure costs and a fair proportion of off-site infrastructure costs, to offset the impacts of this new neighborhood on roads and town utilities. After that, residents of the new neighborhood would pay their way just like all residents do.

In our view, the town’s requirement in the proposed development agreement that the Buck family pay $5 million to expand the wastewater treatment plant is excessive.

To recap: The Buck family owns 46.5 acres near the former gravel pit. The family wants to develop the land, but the lack of water and wastewater services limits the land’s development potential. And under current zoning, the Bucks could build one home per five acres.

Larry Soll, a founder of the Home Trust, wants to buy 15.5 acres to donate to the Home Trust for the development of affordable housing (town documents indicate he’s the donor, and we think his role is public information because this development involves public funds).

His benefit: A tax write-off; there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Bucks are willing to sell Soll the 15.5 acres at current market value if the annexation for all 46.5 acres is approved. Post-annexation, the property value goes up considerably. Soll’s write-off will be bigger and he said he’ll give a portion of that write-off, in the form of cash, to the Home Trust for development of the second phase of the affordable housing neighborhood.

The result: The Bucks get to develop as many as 120 homes on their 31 acres, hooked up to town utilities. Soll gets a sizeable tax write-off. The Home Trust gets 15.5 acres for free and a cash donation for its second phase.

The Home Trust and the Bucks say they will each build 120 homes over a period of 20 years; that’s an average of 12 affordable and mixed-income homes a year.

What we’ve found uncomfortable about this project: “Affordable housing” is being used as leverage to get land with limited development potential annexed into town, to boost its development potential, at some risk to existing ratepayers. And it’s all or nothing with this project: If the town annexes only the land to be set aside for affordable housing, the Bucks “are not going to agree to that,” Soll said.

As a result, the tail has wagged the dog. Home Trust representatives have pushed the town to annex before the end of the year, saying the Home Trust will lose grant funding if the town doesn’t. With that in mind, the town rushed to prepare a staff report and proposed development agreement in time for the Nov. 20 meeting. Some Town Council members and residents complained that they hadn’t had time to fully study the documents.

But after the meeting, Home Trust executive director Nancy DeVaux said there is no year-end deadline for the grants. “They just want to see that it is moving forward,” she said of the state Department of Community Trade and Economic Development. That means the council was misled earlier. That’s inappropriate. If the council decided to abandon the process now based on that alone, it would be within its rights.

Final point: In 2009, San Juan County will begin designing a connector road between Pear Point and Turn Point roads; this road would pass by this neighborhood. County Administrator Pete Rose said the road should be developed by 2012.

This long-envisioned road should an alternative route for vehicles to get downtown, via Turn Point Road to Argyle Avenue. This would relieve narrow, beleaguered Warbass Way. But residents there are concerned that the connector road will have a reverse effect and deliver more vehicles to their street.

The Town Council must ensure that doesn’t happen.

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