Home Trust and Town work through Holli Walk permit issues

After COVID-19 delayed the project, relieved homeowners were finally able to move into Holli Walk, a San Juan Community Home Trust affordable housing development on Price Street. Unexpected requirements by the Town of Friday Harbor’s Community Development and Planning Department, however, have prevented them from finalizing their mortgages. These improvements would cost the Home Trust approximately $200,000 and tear out improvement work they had already done.

“Plans were approved several times, and there was no mention of Holli Place improvements. The $200,000 is not available, it would have to be raised,” Home Trust president Jim Goetz told the Town Council Thursday, Jan. 18 during an appeal of their denial to waive the requirements. “Something about this is not right.”

The issue stems back to the first site permit the Home Trust received. There are two types of site permits, a regular one and a binding one. The only difference between the two is that a binding site plan, under state law, is considered a subdivision and enables the Home Trust to actually sell the units rather than just lease them. The Home Trust filed for and received a regular site plan rather than binding. Under both site permits, the Town could have required sidewalks and other improvements on Holli Place. The Town, however, did not require the Holli Place improvements under the regular site plan that was issued prior to construction but is now requiring them for the binding one the Home Trust is trying to get. When people began to move into the development, the mistake was caught, Dan Grausz, Trust board member explained to the Journal after the meeting.

CPD Ryan Ericson helped the Trust obtain temporary occupancy permits so the homeowners could move in, according to Amanda Lynn, Home Trust Executive Director. In May, there was a ribbon-cutting celebration. “It was quite emotional for them to finally say ‘I own a house.’ That is a very big deal,” Goetz told the Journal. Many of them were in tenuous living situations, facing acute housing insecurity, according to Lynn.

These same homeowners are now facing additional fees because their mortgages cannot be closed on Goetz pointed to the Council, “I urge you to make a timely decision. The Home Trust is paying interest on loans and homeowners are paying fees on their mortgages.”

“We made a mistake, and we accept that,” Grausz told the Council. “We should have applied for a binding site plan.” Grausz also pointed out to the Council that according to the laws, previous permit decisions affecting the property should also be considered. They were not. Instead, after nine permits, during a process where the Trust was transparent that the homes would be sold, nothing was ever conveyed to the Trust that work would need to be done on Holli Place, a short dead-end street. The Trust was required to and completed improvements to Price Street.

“This is not a case of asking for special treatment,” Grausz told the Council. “[The CDP] is refusing to consider the nine prior decisions.”

Lynn reiterated his point, saying that it is imperative the Home Trust be able to rely on the permit process.

Ericson explained in his presentation to the Council that the sidewalk requirements were safety issues, and rather than appealing the Notice of Administrative Decision, the Trust could and should apply for a Design Variance. The Design Variance would allow flexibility with the requirements.

Goetz responded that the Home Trust does not have an issue with a variance per say, but was concerned the process would take several more months to approve. Those additional months translate into additional dollars that homeowners and the Trust would continue paying in fees.

Ericson stated a variance should not take that long, guessing perhaps a month.

Former Mayor and local businessman Farhad Ghatan addressed the Council saying “You have to show some courage and support affordable housing.”

He pointed out that the County has invested millions of dollars not only throughout the county but in Friday Harbor. The Town, on the other hand, has not prioritized the issue. “The town should cover the cost if they insist on the improvements,” said Ghatan. He added that the Council could look into various funding sources. “This would be an opportunity to show leadership,” he said in closing.

The Council began asking questions and deliberating. After asking how unsafe Holli Place would be by keeping the gravel path rather than forcing the Trust to put in a sidewalk, Council member Barbara Starr stated she would be willing to grant the appeal. Other Council members were torn.

“While I agree with everything Barb said, it’s important to have consistency in neighborhoods,” Council member Mason Turnage remarked. “It’s unfortunate that inconsistent information was given to the Home Trust. I’m not prepared to make a decision today.”

Turnage expressed interest in exploring Gatan’s idea about covering the costs for the Home Trust, among other options.

“It is very unfortunate,” Council member Steve Hushebeck agreed. “I appreciate the thorough detail by the staff and the applicant. It is definitely a case of two ships passing in the night. I have concerns about a waiver because it sets a precedent. If a design variance is an option, we could look at how long that would take.”

The hearing was continued to noon Feb. 1, and public comments are being accepted.

Lynn told the Journal afterward that while she had some frustrations after the meeting due to the impacts to the homeowners, she remains confident a solution can be found.

“It was an unfortunate misunderstanding between [the Town and the Home Trust] that can be resolved,” she said, adding that the Town is a critical partner for them. As of Jan. 23, the Trust filed an application for a Design Variance to see if that would indeed resolve the issue.

A recording of the Jan. 18 meeting can be found on the Town’s website at http://www.fridayharbor.org/2202/Agenda-Meeting-Info-Video.

Those wishing to attend the Feb. 1 meeting may do so in person or online at http://www.fridayharbor.org/.