Thursday, December 20, 2007

Growth Management: Deer Creek Water Association

Back in late 2004, the City was asked to agree to allow its water main to be placed under the Guide Meridian, north of town, at the time that the Washington State DOT widens and improves that busy State Road.

That request touched off a debate on the subject, which related to future growth in the vicinity and the City's agreement with the Deer Creek Water Association regarding extension of utilities outside City Limits.

After extended discussion, sufficient facts did emerge to satisfy most of the concerns expressed by Council members, myself included.

But the debate raised some interesting information to scrutiny that wasn't widely known at the time -at least by the Council.

I believe the Council did make the right decision in this case, which was to approve the request.

But, there are those who continue to disagree with the decision Council finally made -to accede to WSDOT's request- it may be interesting to revisit some of the arguments and facts once again.

Also, since similar requests may occur in the future, the current Council may wish to know more about this subject.

Staff Identified the 'Pros and Cons' of Action on Deer Creek Water Line Acquisition and Funding Agreements as follows:
Approve Agreement/Funding

1. Provides infrastructure in an area that is a likely candidate for growth to satisfy GMA requirements to accommodate projected population

2. Recovers from the State over $900,000 in costs that would otherwise be paid only by local rate payers.

3. Is the least costly approach to providing water service in this area

4. Increases the City's ability to influence how development occurs in this area

5. Takes some pressure off other neighborhoods to accept infill

6. Increases the certainty of costs for providing water service in this area and minimizes those costs

7. Provides coordination to overlapping service areas

8. Provides better emergency redundancy to H2O system

1. Inconsistent with City policy of not providing services outside the City limits

2. Extends services to an area that has not been designated by the County as an UGA

3. Facilitates more intensive development in this area, which some people would find objectionable

4. Accelerates increases in the size and costs of police & fire service areas

5. Would impose additional costs on current rate payers for capacity they don't need

6. Increases pressure on Council to approve more service connections in this area

Reject Agreement/Funding


1. Provides time to consider this issue in more detail-including coordinating consideration by the County of the City's UGA

2. Slows the pace and intensity of growth in this area

3. Allows exploration of developer financing of water line extension to area


1. Precludes constructing a City water line on Guide Meridian in future

2. If a City water line is constructed in the area in the future, it would be significantly more expensive because it would require, among other things, acquiring easements on private property

3. May promote low-density sprawl in this area because people can continue to install private wells and septic systems

4. Precludes opportunity to master plan this area

5. Makes it more difficult to locate projected growth (31,6000 people; 15,000 DUs; 1,200 DUs in this area-If not here, then where?

6. Requires amending the City's established service and 5-year review areas

One fact that wasn't well understood was that years ago, the entire County was divided up into sectors for the purpose of determining which entities would have the responsibility for providing water to them.

This was included in a document referred to as the 'County Water Plan', or some similar title.

The part of western Whatcom County assigned to Bellingham basically extended north to Smith Road, which probably is still the City's planned service area at some time in the future.

Another fact was that the owners of the CAITAC property anticipated eventually receiving water service from Bellingham, by a an agreement signed in 1993.

But, finding out about these plans did take some doing, including asking the battery of layered question sets listed below.

By having to ask successive questions that were not obvious, this exercise took on the character of peeling an onion, or so it seemed at the time.

Here are several categories of information that either bear on this issue or are impacted by it.
Of these, the simplest category is that body of facts that apply to the current Deer Creek proposal.

A. Deer Creek Facts

1. How many new Dwelling Units [DUs] can be supported by a 10" waterline? A 16" waterline?

2. What surrounding Utility Service Zone Area [USZ] is anticipated to be served by new COB waterline?

3. What is the potential for population and water demand for this USZ?

4. How much of this USZ is within current City Limits?

5. How much of this USZ is within current City UGA Limits?

6. How much of this USZ is within current 5-Year Review Area Limits?

7. What maximum volume of water to Deer Creek will Interlocal allow? Available?

8. What wholesale rates will apply to water supplied to Deer Creek? Adequate?

9. What is actual deadline for WSDOT EIS to be completed?

10. The presentations by Public Works seemed to be more concerned with quick approval of the action requested than with Council being sufficiently informed about the context surrounding it. This, coupled with slowness in providing additional information, led to the feeling that Council was not really being given a choice. The lack of 'big picture' implications was particularly troubling. Council deserved better explanations, up-front.

B. Annexation - Questions & Concerns

1. How does Administration/PW understanding of current Council policy align with this proposal?

2. Why is accepting a new bulk water customer, whose service area straddles City Limits and UGA limits considered acceptable under current policy?

3. Since City policy has been unique in Whatcom County by allowing extension of utilities without annexation, does the Administration advocate a continuance of these practices, despite current policy to the contrary?

4. Does PW recognize past annexation policy has served to create current UGA problems?

5. Does PW's reliance on water & sewer premiums charged outside City Limits constitute an additional barrier to annexation?

6. Would PW be willing to consider raising water & sewer premiums in UGA as a means of more simply encouraging annexation via economics?

C. Interlocal Agreements - Questions & Concerns

1. Generally, is Council approval required to initiate negotiations on an Interlocal Agreement?

2. Is Council approval required to approve any Interlocal Agreement?

3. If an Interlocal was initiated and approved by earlier Councils, what mechanism exists to inform current and future Councils of these Interlocals?

4. If an Interlocal requires renewal, adjustment or termination, is Council consulted?

5. Is there a list -by Department or otherwise- of all outstanding Interlocals?

6. Would the Administration consider periodic reports on the status, ongoing need for, and impacts of Interlocals on current Council considerations?
[Note, this might be similar to Legal and Hearing Examiner periodic reports]

7. Might the City benefit from reviewing, changing or terminating Interlocals periodically?

8. Which, if any, Interlocals are considered overly restrictive or counter-productive to current City policy by PW? e.g. WD10?

9. Which existing Interlocals straddle City Limits? UGA limits? USZ limits?

D. Utility Service Zones - Questions & Concerns

1. In general, how do these set or influence City policy?

2. Does current City policy take precedence over USZs?

3. What % of existing USZs in UGA have already been served? 42%? What impact does Deer Creek have on this calculation?

4. Is this information routinely shared with Planning and Council in GIS overlay format as guidelines to inform decisions?

5. What changes, if any, are anticipated in the Comp Plan update?

6. If USZs are completely built out, what is impact on City's water and sewer capacity?

7. If services are extended outside City limits, who pays? Are SDC rates adequate?

E. Responsibility for Informing Council - Questions & Concerns

1. Council relies mainly on Administration staff for timely & adequate information. Are there any minimum guidelines, checklists or protocols for insuring this happens regularly?

2. Staff reports to the Administration, and Council relies on staff as the primary source for factual information in its decision-making. When additional information is needed, or conflicting information is heard, what options does Council have to satisfy its need for balance?

3. Recognizing the respective roles of Council, Mayor and staff, the opportunity always exists to influence policy decisions. Excessive use of executive confidentiality can undermine the atmosphere of trust necessary for public credibility and a good working relationship with Council. This is difficult to gain, but easy to lose. Presenting just the facts first, then discussing their context would be a helpful policy to follow.

4. Timing of information coming to Council for deliberation is a common problem. Additional time for Council consideration should not be considered a negative, but opportunity to better inform Council and the public. There are limits to efficiency and expediency in a democracy!

F. Comprehensive Plan Update - Questions & Concerns

1. PW knows Comp Plan Update is underway and that Deer Creek decision will have a significant impact. Decision required was out of sequence with an orderly process.

2. Delays in the Comp Plan Update may have squeezed PW to push a Deer Creek decision early.

3. Whatcom County has its own agenda regarding the Comp Plan Update and may not agree with some ideas and policies the City advocates.

4. All of above may have contributed to PW's perceived defensive attitude and "take or leave it" stance, plus its reluctance to volunteer more information earlier. Additionally, PW has already clashed with Council over utility extension policy and may be sensitized to this issue.

G. Big Picture - Questions & Concerns

1. All things considered, is the Deer Creek proposal in the City's best interest?

2. If Administration/PW are so convinced this is the right thing to do, why not have a concerted effort to also convince Council?

3. Council is capable of understanding and dealing with "complicated" issues. We do this all the time, but rely on staff to provide facts and analysis first.

4. By not having the chance to see the "big picture", its harder to see where this piece of the puzzle fits in. It appears to be very essential piece!

5. Piecemeal is the way many things proceed, but unless done carefully, progressive disclosure can lead to frustration and suspicion.

6. GMA planning is very high profile and very important. Why not treat these individual decisions as essential building blocks and give them the time and attention commensurate with responsible, long-term planning?

7. Handled appropriately, the Deer Creek proposal should have passed easily with minimal discussion. circaCouncil - Staff relationships need to be built on trust, and giving all the information up front would have been a much better approach.