By JESSE BURKHARDT
With the moratorium on new water hookups about to end, the White Salmon City Council is debating how best to allocate the water meters that will become available.
At the April 7 council meeting, the city's attorney, Ken Woodrich, explained that a draft ordinance proposed a partial lifting of the water connection moratorium in order to give Innovative Composites Engineering (ICE) a water meter. ICE, which could employ as many as 100, is currently building a 63,500 square foot industrial facility just outside the White Salmon city limits near the corner of Main Street and Snowden Road.
ICE designs, engineers, and manufactures composite materials for use in a variety of industrial, aerospace, automotive, recreational, and military uses.
An excerpt from the proposed ordinance before the council read in part: "ICE has expressed its wish to relocate within the city's water service area ... and has agreed to annex to the city; and whereas the business will offer employment opportunities to city residents and increase the city's tax base without a significant impact to the city's water supply system; and whereas the Washington Department of Health has indicated it will allow the city to reissue returned water connections in a quantity sufficient to allow the business to connect to the city water supply system ... the city deems it to be in the best interest of the city to allow ICE to connect to its water system."
ICE would require an estimated 640,000 gallons of water a year from the city. Mayor David Poucher pointed out that is not considered a high volume of water.
"That's not a major user," Poucher said. "That's equivalent to what six homes would use in a year."
However, what at first seemed like a straightforward plan to move forward with a water connection ran into controversy as questions were raised about the fairness of prioritizing a hookup for ICE.
"This proposed ordinance would give rights to a corporation over private citizens, and that violates the Constitution," said Darlene Johnson, a White Salmon resident who serves on the city's budget committee. "Water hookups are a very heated issue. Please, when drafting ordinances, you can't give special privileges to a citizen or corporation over another citizen or corporation."
Because of the concerns raised, the council members went into an executive session to decide how to proceed.
"We have prepared an ordinance that would allow you to prioritize the awarding of a water meter to ICE," Woodrich said. "There have been questioned raised as to its propriety -- preferring one customer over another. We need to go into executive session to discuss this issue and possible litigation."
After a closed-door session, Woodrich recommended that the water ordinance be tabled until the council's April 21 meeting. Woodrich said it was important to hold a public hearing on how to award what was likely to be a limited number of water hookups.
Council member Anthony Coulter said he did not see any reason to deny or delay awarding a water connection to ICE. "A pro-business water hookup policy sounds like a good thing to strive for," Coulter said.
Coulter suggested a 50-50 approach to accommodate all customers.
"If we want a business priority, that's fine, but let's balance it out," he said. "If we give three water meters to businesses, let's give three meters to residential uses too."
Council member Mark Peppel cautioned that it would be a big mistake not to give a growing local business priority for water service.
"If ICE is rejected, we'll never get another business in town," Peppel warned.
The motion to table was accepted unanimously, with the decision deferred until at least April 21. In the meantime, the city's operations committee will review the proposed ordinance.
Steven Maier, president and CEO of ICE, was present at the April 7 meeting. After the vote to table a decision on awarding a water meter to ICE, Maier handed a note to Mayor Poucher and left the meeting room.
Later, a somber Poucher revealed what was in the note.
"I have a note from Steven Maier," Poucher announced. "He can't wait for water any longer. He will start drilling a well at the building site tomorrow. We've lost ICE as a water customer, and for annexation into the city for a long time. I wanted to let everyone know about that."
Maier said he was not happy about having to drill a well, but was unable to wait any longer for the city to make a decision.
"Preparation started today (April 8) and we will be drilling a well," Maier explained after the meeting. "The cost is very substantial, but we have no choice but to follow this path as we have been waiting far too long for a water hookup."
Maier conceded there was no guarantee that a well would provide the company with enough water to meet its needs.
"Just like anyone drilling a well, we are going to sink a hole and keep our fingers crossed that we aren't still drilling at 1,500 feet," he said.
Maier added that the building is nearing completion, and if the facility had water, "we would most likely already be utilizing part of it."
"Without water, we cannot get occupancy or a partial occupancy, so we are stuck," Maier explained. "Our goal is still to move in by June 15, but right now, everything rides on us getting a suitable supply of water."
Maier declined to comment on how the city's failure to grant ICE a water connection would impact possible future annexation into the city limits.
Maier also took note of council member Peppel's warning that if ICE could not get water, the city would be unlikely to attract new businesses.
"That comment was very insightful. He is a very wise man," Maier said.
Poucher said he was upset at the inability of the city to act swiftly to benefit a business that is bringing critically-needed jobs and tax revenue to the city. He pointed out that it was counterproductive for the city to try to find perfection before moving forward with anything.
"Come on, folks, you have to step out a little bit," Poucher said. "Here we have a company that employs 100 individuals, and still you have to look at everything. Either we're business friendly or we're not."
Poucher noted that the city would see substantial financial benefits if ICE were to annex into the city limits.
"It would be like adding $5 million of property value to the city. It would be substantial. The water hookup fees are significant too," he said.
The public hearing will be on April 21, starting at 6 p.m. at the White Salmon Fire Hall. Copies of the draft water ordinance are at White Salmon City Hall for anyone who wants to read a copy before the meeting.
As for the so-called "waiting list" for those wanting to connect to the city's water system, city officials made clear that there never has been any legal basis for the list, as it was never authorized or created by the White Salmon City Council.
"That list needs to go away," said Poucher.