During the Feb. 6 White Salmon City Council meeting, Mayor Dave Poucher spoke about being invited to Washington State Senate Housing & Affordability Committee meeting on Jan. 23.
Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Belle-vue), chair of the committee, invited the mayors from Chelan, Wenatchee, Walla Walla, and White Salmon to speak. The cities have all experienced difficulties with creating affordable housing options over the last 15 years.
Poucher opened his remarks to the Senate committee by thanking Sen. Kuderer for inviting him, then jumped right into the housing situation and some background information about White Salmon.
“White Salmon lies in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge and is one of three incorporated urban areas on the Washington side of the Columbia River. The median price of sold homes in White Salmon is $450,000, with rent within the city ranging from $1,800 a month for a 1,350-square- foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom townhome to $2,200 a month for a single-family, two bedroom and two-and-a-half bath home,” said Poucher.
Poucher described White Salmon as a literal “city on a hill,” noting the wide range in elevations provides for lots to have incredible views of the Gorge and Mt. Hood, which correlates to a wide range in lot and home pricing than many locals cannot afford.
“These differences in elevation provide spectacular views of the Columbia River and Mt. Hood. As you can imagine some of these view lots sell in the low million-dollar range, while lots with just a view of Mt. Hood sell in the low $200,000. Non-view lots at 5,000 square feet sell for $100,000 to $125,000,” said Poucher.
To the committee, these numbers make White Salmon out to be a wealthy suburban vacation area, which it is and it isn’t. Poucher spoke to this point by highlighting facts about the White Salmon Valley School District as well as how the City has been recognized as eligible for Community Devel-opment Block Grants (CDBG)
“As of December 31, 2018, approximately 45 percent of our student population was on free or reduced meal status,” said Poucher.
In addition to much of the working population not being able to afford to live in the area, another issue is in the home development process. Poucher noted that with the city being literally built on a hill, much of the infrastructure was developed haphazardly.
“The water and sewer infrastructure are for the most part is over 70 years old and substandard as to size and material. We have large undeveloped spaces between developments, with water service provided by four-inch cement asbestos and two-inch galvanized pipe. Fire flow in many areas is not enough for development that requires buildings to have a sprinkler system, or even to handle a single residence fire. Even with the very high cost of land, we still have individuals and companies that want to build low to moderate and workforce housing. Our problem is the cost of getting adequate water and sewer to the edge of the property,” said Poucher.
Poucher went on to provide three examples of this key issue.
Over the past two years, the City of White Salmon has been working with a cooperative housing group to develop housing for low to moderate income families. The cost of the infrastructure improvements would be $600,000 for sewer and $1. 4 million for water.
The City hired an engineering firm to assist it with writing a CDBG for the sewer portion. The cooperative housing group worked with the fire department, which had proposed that the group build a large cistern that could be used for fire protection until the water infrastructure could be extended.
Unfortunately, the City’s application was denied, and the cooperative housing group abandoned its plans to build 50 homes on the property.
At the same time and close to the cooperative housing group site was another potential development.
This development would have consisted of 500 new dwelling units at the build out. The first addition would be 50 two- and three-bedroom apartments and single-family homes. This proposed development consisted of commercial buildings, multi-family apartment complexes, duplex housing, and single-family housing. This development would have provided housing for families with incomes ranging from low too high in one single development.
The infrastructure improvements needed to bring water and sewer to the property line were over $2 million, not including infrastructure improvement costs inside the development which are normally paid by the developer. Given the proximity to the cooperative housing development, cost sharing would have been a possibility.
The third lost opportunity was a small industry that wanted to build on property directly adjacent to the City and would eventually be annexed in. White Salmon lost this opportunity because of the costs associated to make improvements to substandard sewer and water utilities and reservoir infrastructure to support a 200-employee industry. The estimated cost of these improvements was $700,000. This company ultimately moved to Dallesport.
“What really gets frustrating is when our own State agencies require additional requirements that are not in any State law or regulations,” said Poucher.
For the last three years, the City of White Salmon has been working with Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and in 2020 WSDOT is planning on repaving Highway 141, which passes through White Salmon’s commercial district.
To be proactive the City has been planning to replace the 70-year-old failing water main that is underneath the highway prior to the WSDOT pavement project. This waterline is critical for downtown businesses, east-side residences, the Hospital District, the City of Bingen, and the Port of Klickitat.
The City of White Salmon hired an engineering firm to design and prepare bids for this project. The engineering firm estimates for the project will cost $1 million. WSDOT reviewed the project and added additional requirements that doubled the price to $2 million.
After reaching out to Washington State representatives, the City was able to get some relief.
WSDOT is still requiring the City to install unnecessary restraint joints, which will cost an additional $250,000. This requirement is outside the normal American Water Works Association (AWWA) construction standards. In addition, the improvement is being tied into the City of Bingen’s project that lies underneath a portion of Highway 141 that was completed a couple of years ago without any of the unnecessary additions being asked now.
“We are trying to replace a 70-year-old failing water main that could rupture and cause damage to the road. We are not required to replace this water main, but good management says you should. WSDOT’s insistence on unnecessary protections that are not supported by any engineering standards may cause the city to leave the old pipe in place, raising the risk of a catastrophic rupture that could wash out the road and damage Jewett Creek. Our engineers have stated they can find no supporting reasons to use restraints on inline pipe,” said Poucher.
Poucher closed his presentation by answering Sen. Kuderer’s overall question of “what could the State Legislature do to help small cities attract and build more low to moderate income and workforce housing?”
“The Public Works Trust Fund should be set as an actual trust for the benefit of the cities, counties, water and wastewater utility districts in Washington State. In the past this funding program has played an essential funding source for these utility entities. It should be setup as a low interest loan program to assist in some determined level to be self-supporting,” said Poucher.
Poucher compounded on his earlier statement about the City of White Salmons application for a CDBG, of which it was denied, despite being recognized as a low to moderate income ity by the CDBG.
“The City is a regional water supplier, serving western Klickitat County, eastern Skamania County, the City of Bingen, and the Port of Klickitat. The income levels outside the City limits made us ineligible for the CDBG grant, “said Poucher.
Poucher went on to say that when grants are being evaluated a smaller picture of the area should be used in order to better gauge the actual beneficiaries from the grant.
He then formally requested on behalf of the City of White Salmon that a reform of grant and loan funding programs in Washington State take place, along with the creation of more competitive grant options for small communities. In most cases small cities are unable to compete while larger communities have funds available to plan and design shovel ready projects.