By JESSE BURKHARDT
Nearly 60 people came to the May 6 meeting of the White Salmon City Council. The session was billed as a public hearing to "discuss setting a priority list for industrial and residential water hookups" and to discuss new fees for those hookups.
Ken Woodrich, the city's attorney, said a draft ordinance proposes to start with the first name on the city's waiting list for any new water hookups -- but with a condition.
"Those people ready to build will get the meters that become available," he said. "The rest will keep their position on the waiting list."
Many of those in attendance said they thought that approach would be unfair.
"My concern is that this meets the needs of one group, and not others," explained Deanne Woodring of White Salmon. "Consider every property owner, whether they are ready to build now or not."
Richard Hallman, a White Salmon property owner who lives in Hood River, said he bought a lot as an investment property in 2006 and now is unable to sell it because he cannot get water for the property.
"I wish I'd never bought the property," he said. "It's been for sale for a year and a half. It's worthless without water. It's great to help out those ready to build, but is that fair?"
Hallman added that if priority is going to be given to those ready to build, a reasonable period to do so should be granted.
"When it comes to my number on the waiting list, I should have six months or a year to build," he said.
White Salmon resident Eric Swanson pointed out that if the city sharply increases water hookup impact fees now, that puts an even greater burden on those who do not now have water meters.
"Shenanigans went on in the past, when developers got meters to sit on," he explained. "Now everyone who didn't get a meter is looking at huge impact fees."
Swanson added that it wouldn't be right to bypass those at the front of the line on the waiting list to help one particular group.
"I have a lot for sale with no water," Swanson said. "I've been on a list all this time, and shouldn't be bypassed because someone comes in and says, `I'm going to build.' They are going to take hookups that by rights should be ours. Our property is not worth anything without water -- we can't sell it. There has to be a more equitable way."
However, local Realtor Lori Clark said prioritizing building would help the community in many ways.
"We're getting hurt in every aspect of our community. Without building there is no landscaping work, no roofing, no framing. We can't have water meters in the ground with no jobs attached to them," Clark said. "Part of the intent in giving priority to those ready to build is to stimulate the economy and get people jobs."
Clark added that those with lots they can't sell could sell them to someone ready to build.
Another White Salmon Realtor, Shirley Cox, said it was important to limit the number of water hookups those on the list should be allowed to get.
"I recommend giving just one hookup per name on the waiting list, instead of allowing several people to take all that are available," Cox said.
Another citizen said the number of meters had to be tied to zoning on the property in question.
"If duplexes were to be built, with only one meter that property owner still couldn't build," said Greg Hohensee of White Salmon.
Another citizen questioned whether more meters could be supported.
"If we're under our approved water rights only with strict conservation, should we even be having a conversation about new hookups?" he asked. "If we give out more hookups, we're going to be back to using too much water."
One property owner said the city's proposed mandate to require building might end up hurting the city, because owners could find ways to get around the requirement.
"If building is the criteria, I'm looking real hard at putting a cheap mobile home on my property," he pointed out.
After the public comments, attorney Woodrich asked the council members for input on possible revisions to the draft water ordinance.
"There is a fundamental policy question over one issue raised tonight: Do you want to consider prioritizing water connections to those ready to build, or stick with what we have on the waiting list?" Woodrich said. "And do you want to see one meter per name? One per lot? Per zoning?"
Council member Mark Peppel said providing just one meter per name on the list made the most sense.
"Offer one meter instead of having people hoard them again," Peppel said. "And it will help revitalize our economy if people are ready to build."
Councilor Brad Roberts agreed that giving priority to those ready to build would help the community the most.
"That gets the best utilization of the resource," Roberts said.
Woodrich said he would draw up the new ordinance with an "established, rigorous schedule for building."
"Plus, there will be a written agreement with each person as to what happens if they don't meet the schedule for building," Woodrich explained.
Peppel added that the public needs to know the end of the water moratorium is in sight.
"People think this is never going to end, but by the end of this year, we should be in a lot better shape," he said.
After the meeting, Mayor Poucher said he was pleased with what transpired.
"I thought it went very well," Poucher said. "We appreciate the citizens turning out. No matter which way we go, there will be winners and losers, but at least we're working through the problem."
Council member Richard Marx questioned why the city was considering raising rates for water hookups.
"The City Council kept water hookups in their back pocket because they planned on raising the rates," Marx said. "The meters were not given out when they were supposed to be. Nothing but excuses have been made for not doing that."
Marx said the city's previous water ordinance specified that property owners had to build in order to get water meters, but the city had not enforced the ordinance.
"Nobody went by the old ordinance before. The old ordinance said you have to build," Marx said. "Everybody on that waiting list was skipped over at least one time, when the city sent a letter to all those not in compliance to just come in and reapply. The word `reapply' does not appear in that ordinance, and the city had no authority to do that."
Roberts said he believed the city was on the right track going forward.
"The real solution is being taken care of, but it's not happening as fast as we want," explained Roberts. "We need to bring up our capacity. No matter what analysis you use, we just don't have enough water."
Roberts said his priority was to make sure there was enough water to fight fires, especially with summer coming on.
"In my position, I first have to look out for the ratepayers already on the system and at fire danger," he said. "It's very frustrating to have people irate over not being able to get hookups. As a builder, they are kind of preaching to the choir about how it feels. I wish there was more we could, and faster. The good news is, we're close to everybody getting the water they need -- close as in several months more than they want to wait. But we're on our way to a solution here."