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City debates water ordinance changes

13 points reviewed

The city of White Salmon is accelerating efforts to revise its ordinances related to water services.

At last week's meeting of the White Salmon City Council, members reviewed a proposed list of changes presented by Brad Roberts, head of the city's water/wastewater committee.

Point by point, Roberts presented a three-page draft, with council members and citizens offering comments on the 13 specific points.

"The goal is to develop a proposal that makes the city's growth support itself. That is what we hope to do," Roberts said.

It was clear from the issues raised that many citizens and council members want to find a way around a system that allows people to purchase water hookups and essentially sit on them indefinitely -- with no cost or penalty.

Among the highlights of the draft proposal:

Each water connection application shall be accompanied by an application fee of $300 per connection request. The application fee shall be non-refundable;

Prospective applicants for the first 36 connections per the waiting list shall be afforded an opportunity to submit an application for water connection within 30 days of the date of notice from the city;

If a prospective applicant does not submit a complete application along with the application fee and other required fees ... then the prospective applicant shall be removed from the waiting list at the end of the 30-day period;

There shall be a separate application for each connection;

Each application shall make a request for physical connection to the water system within 60 days of the date of the application, and any failure to do so shall result in forfeiture of the right to connect to the water system.

"We're trying to get out of the limbo of, `we'll let you know when we need the water hookup,'" Roberts explained.

Immediately upon physical connection to the water system, each water user shall begin paying a minimum base monthly water fee of 50 percent of the base rate.

"The effort here is to put a little bit of commitment into people early on," Roberts said.

However, Deborah Phillips, the city's attorney, questioned whether paying half of the base fee would make a difference to a developer who wants to hold off on building indefinitely.

"Is $20 a month going to make a difference?" she asked. "If you're trying to motivate people, make the fee higher. You might also want to discuss the 60-day hookup period. Is 60 days reasonable?"

Council member John Mayo said the city should not lock in to the 60-day deadline.

"There should be some ability for the council to make adjustments in the event of real hardship," Mayo said.

Roberts said the idea was for people to come forward for their water at the point when they were ready to start building.

"This would be, if you're ready to play, pay," Roberts said. "If you want it, here it is. We don't want to manage a list for a year."

"But if you hit a snag, you could lose your spot on the list and could lose the whole project. There should be some recourse," Mayo responded. "There are people who can abuse the system, but at the same time, if there is a genuine hardship, this could really change the course of someone's life. It should be more flexible somehow."

Council member Richard Marx expressed skepticism about the proposed changes.

"You're telling me you're going to enforce this 60-day period?" he questioned.

"That would be my intention," Roberts responded.

"But people have hookups now that they're holding for a later date," Marx said. "What's the point of changing the ordinance if you can't even go by the one we've got?"

Several contractors in the audience at the March 7 meeting pointed out that they had hoped to have houses built by now. Yet because some developers had "speculated" on water connections and were in no hurry to start building, there was no water available for those who were ready to build.

One of the contractors, Bob Stawicki, said he recently bought property in White Salmon and expected to have his house built by now. Stawicki, a building contractor who currently lives in Fairview, Ore., bought a half-acre lot in White Salmon in 2004, and applied for water in May 2006.

"I had a building plan. All I needed was water, and I was denied," he said. "I planned to build one house -- my own -- but everything is on hold."

Stawicki offered a simple fix to resolving the problems the city has had with maintaining a "waiting list" for water hookups. He said if someone does not have an approved plan from the city's Building Department, they should not be allowed to get a water connection.

"That's all you need to do. They shouldn't be allowed to get water without a building plan," he said. "Builders are being denied because others are sitting on them."

Mike Wellman, the city's water systems engineer, said there was no restriction to that effect currently.

"The way the ordinance is now, if you have a lot and pay a fee, you get a hookup. That's all you have to do," Wellman said.

"Not many municipalities allow that," Stawicki pointed out. "Even in Klickitat County. You have `X' time period to act on the permit, or it's withdrawn."

Stawicki said he appreciated the council's efforts to address the controversies surrounding the water system issues, but suggested the city take a stronger approach.

"The important thing is to resolve the issue of the waiting list, and get rid of the abuse," Stawicki said. "In most places, you can't get utilities without an approved plan. You shouldn't have a water meter without a building plan. Why not throw the full fee on them, put it to them. Make it a stiff fee, because they speculated. That will prevent abuse. You'll free up those meters right now, and free up your list."

Stawicki added that a direct approach was the city's best bet.

"That will solve the problems right now. The monthly fee is a good idea. If the fee isn't high enough, no one will care, so they need to charge full price," he said. "That would make it self-enforcing."

Wellman said he believed the council was headed in the right direction.

"Defining the ordinance in a way that is clear to everybody is very important," Wellman said. "The goal is to make sure the ordinance clearly specifies what we're going to do. We intend to follow the ordinance 100 percent, but the ordinances have to be clear -- and sometimes they're not."

Councilor Mayo said he hoped the council could move swiftly to craft a more efficient and effective ordinance.

"I think we should act quickly but very carefully," Mayo said. "Water and development issues can really affect people in a big way. There is a sense that the city needs to be more consistent and firm. I think that is right, but I know there are as many different situations as there are people out there, so we need to be sure that our effort to `tighten up' doesn't cause undue stress or delay to people who are doing their best to build themselves a home. The ordinance should be written in such a way that gives the City Council a bit of flexibility when it comes to special circumstances."

Stawicki said he did not believe the city had handled itself properly regarding the water moratorium.

"The city called folks and told them to get water before the moratorium," Stawicki contended. "Then those people picked up the phone to encourage their friends to buy water. The city made commitments to people and to the state. It's widely known that the city never enforced its municipal code. Now they're trying to make changes so they can enforce it. The city failed at every level. The ordinance was written and needed to be enforced. The city didn't enforce it. That causes a legal conundrum."

Councilor Marx blasted what he characterized as the city's lax approach in recent years.

"The city code has been blatantly ignored or vigorously enforced depending upon who you are," Marx explained. "How about a clarification on why an invalid policy was enforced, and how people got to reapply ahead of everyone else on the waiting list. Could the other council members put together in writing on just where the loophole is and why they seem to be protecting the people who are using it?"

The City Council intends to hold a work session to further discuss and tailor proposed changes to the water ordinance.

The council also discussed moving to a monthly billing system for water customers, rather than every two months, as it is now.

"I would like to move in that direction, with the council's approval," said Eric Greene, the city's clerk-treasurer.


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