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Water Hookup Debate Intensifies

Councilman walks out in protest

With a series of raucous exchanges among City Council members slowing progress, the city of White Salmon continued with its efforts to come up with a definitive policy regarding water service connections.

During the council's Jan. 3 session, council member Brad Roberts, who chairs the city's water committee, presented a two-page draft proposal on water connections policy to the full council.

"We've worked on this policy for awhile," Roberts explained. "It's in draft form still, but I believe the items there will help us sort this out and allow city staff to uniformly apply this ordinance and let citizens know there is a clear, uniform way to connect [to the city's water system]. This is not to dig up the past or have a witch hunt. We want to move forward and eliminate unfairness."

Excerpted highlights of the draft policy document, dated Jan. 1, 2007, include:

Staff will compose and mail a letter to all water applicants, defined as those property owners having purchased either connection since September 2005 and whose building or remodeling has not commenced, informing them that ... No further extensions, beyond the initial six months as stated in White Salmon Municipal Code (WSMC) 13.16.010, will be granted ... failure to comply ... will result in forfeiture of any and all monies paid for said connection;

If and when there are violations, the Public Works Department will immediately being code enforcement proceedings;

Public Works staff will be responsible for code enforcement of the water conservation ordinance effective immediately;

All future requests for water extensions will come before City Council;

Staff will prepare a list to City Council of all approved short plats and subdivision within the past five years for which no application has been made for water and/or sewer connections;

Until Chapter 13 of the WSMC is changed, altered, or otherwise revised, it is the responsibility ... of the city of White Salmon to adhere to said ordinances and this policy as written.

In addition, the draft policy document requests that the city attorney immediately effect the following changes to the city's water ordinances:

Water and sewer connection applications and approval will be granted in strict adherence to the WSMC. Potential applicants will be so informed and must sign a declaration of understanding to be filed at City Hall;

No more than 50 percent of any new, available connections will be available and granted to subdivisions or PUDs;

Special consideration by City Council ... may be granted to those persons documenting affordable housing development;

All properties with an inactive water meter or sewer connection will be charged a monthly fee per connection to cover future source, capacity, storage, and infrastructure costs (the amount of the monthly fee is to be determined);

Water and sewer connection fees will automatically increase annually by five percent.

White Salmon resident Jon Madian was among those who attended the Jan. 3 council meeting to urge the council to work through the water hookup issue without "punishing" those who proceeded based on what they were told by City Hall officials.

"We were led by the city government to believe we'd have the opportunity to develop our land when ready. We bought the water hookups in good faith, and we shouldn't be at any risk of forfeiting the money we've invested," Madian said. "Citizens who acted in good faith shouldn't have a threat of penalty."

Councilor Roberts asked Madian why he thought there was no deadline on starting his water service.

"What led you to believe that once you purchased the water hookup, it had endless life?" Roberts questioned.

"We were not necessarily given a sheet that gave us that information. Nothing said, `use this hookup within six months,'" Madian responded. "We didn't have any sense we'd have to act on it this rapidly. Maybe we should have asked or the city should have told us, I don't know."

However, Public Works Director Wil Keyser pointed out that the timelines are printed on the city's application forms for water connections.

"Six months is on the face of the application," Keyser said. "If you didn't know, you didn't read it."

"The ordinance requires a physical hookup within the first six months, unless there is an extension granted by the City Council," added city attorney Deborah Phillips.

Council member Richard Marx reiterated his point that White Salmon's water ordinances are not being enforced.

"The ordinance says the City Council grants all extensions. Has the City Council ever granted any extensions, ever?"

"No -- and no one is disputing that," Phillips replied.

"It has been over a year [since water hookups were issued by the city] and there have been no extensions. So everyone is in complete violation of the ordinance," Marx said.

Council member Susan Benedict pointed out that many people had to wait for the city to provide water meters after they purchased their water connections.

"I have concerns over this, because the city waited a long time to get in the new meters -- eight or nine months. I know people were waiting for meters to arrive," Benedict explained.

Benedict added that she did not think it would be fair for the city to strictly adhere to the six-month timeline to install water meters when the city was responsible for the delay.

"I'm not sure that's appropriate," she said.

Marx said he saw the issue from another perspective.

"Someone buys a bunch of water hookups and sits on them, but others who want to build cannot, because they can't get hookups -- that's where hard feelings come from," Marx said.

Councilor Roberts said it was important for the city to move on.

"Let's work on these ordinances and fix them. We can't strip people of things they've been given," Roberts said.

Roberts was referring to former Mayor Roger Holen's September 2005 letter that granted additional six-month extensions for those who had purchased water connections but had not yet put meters in the ground.

Marx contended that Holen's letter was not legitimate.

"The extensions should never have happened. Mayor Holen's letter is null and void," Marx explained. "What's the point of voting on this if the administration is going to overrule us? Let's uphold the ordinance."

"Let's adjust the ordinance," Roberts countered.

Council member Timi Keene said the city had to accept responsibility for actions taken on the city's behalf.

"I think it's our obligation, despite errors, to honor the letter sent offering the opportunity for people to re-apply for water connections," Keene said. "We all recognize the letter should not have occurred, but that's over and done with. But we have to honor that commitment we as a city made in issuing that letter."

Roberts agreed.

"If citizens proceeded with that information we provided and we go back on it, we'll be sued," Roberts said.

Keyser explained that Mayor Holen had directed the city staff to grant extensions to those who re-applied for water connections.

"The mayor's theory was that there was a loophole in the city ordinance; it didn't say they couldn't re-apply," Keyser said.

Marx left in protest in the middle of the council meeting. He later said he did so because he was shocked at the actions of the city government.

"I couldn't take any more," Marx said on Friday. "I can't believe the administration can deliberately hang the city out to dry. That's what those letters did. It puts the city on the chopping block. No one wants to take a look at who's to blame, but there's someone to blame here, and it's the administration. They stepped out of line and put the city of White Salmon in another possible lawsuit, and they should be held accountable."

Bob Landgren, a White Salmon resident, told the council members he did not believe the mayor had the authority to write a letter granting an extension to the water hookup deadlines.

"Is there anything in the Municipal Code that allows the mayor to do that? If there is nothing in the code, then I think it's called a public gift, and that's not legal," Landgren said. "If a person pays for a water hookup, they have a certain time to hook up. I don't think we should give them any breaks."

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