The following article appeared in the Anacortes American, Wednesday, December 1, 1999.

City, county at odds over rural density

Failing septic systems on Similk Bay one impact of development, city says

American staff writer

Although Skagit County planners admit only a "small minority" of south Fidalgo Island property owners want another chance to increase the rural density south of Anacortes, city officials say they are alarmed that an issue they thought had been put to rest has been raised once again.

Further, the county's own health department has records dating back to the mid-1970s stating failing septic systems are a major problem on various parts of the island not served by direct sewer line. In fact, the state Department of Health may well close Similk Bay to commercial shellfish harvesting later this year. Ken Willis, the county's environmental health supervisor, said state workers have taken fecal bacteria counts, interviewed owners who have septic systems, and tested those systems and adjacent ditches.

The preliminary conclusion? Similk Bay, an otherwise clean-water bay, has been contaminated by sewage runoff from adjoining and failing septic systems. If the bay is closed, a longtime commercial oyster operation also will be shut down.

"There is not any problem with the water quality of the bay. It is only because the drainage containing the sewage goes into the bay. We need to protect human health," Willis said.

City planning director Ian Munce said the same thing in a letter to county assistant planning director Gary Christensen, dated Monday, Nov. 29. Munce was responding to a county proposal to review and assess increasing residential densities on south Fidalgo Island, as part of the overall public-hearing review taking place Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the county administration building.

County planning director Tom Karsh, who used to work in the county health department overseeing septic systems, said the city shouldn't be concerned because county officials are only "reconsidering" rezone changes on south Fidalgo Island. Karsh admitted some disgruntled property owners are driving the discussion and review, but said there are no guarantees anything will change from the 1997 plan. That set an average density of one house per 2-1/2 acres, and was agreed to by the city and county.

Karsh also disputed incidents of septic failure, or that any increased density would affect that. He said current technology allows for state-of-the-art systems that can be built, and work well, anywhere.

"Tell us and we'll fix that through current technology, although the health department does have primary responsibility," Karsh said.

Munce said Karsh is ignoring years of failed systems, some of which already foul roadside ditches, various waterways, and, now, Similk Bay.

"The (health) threat is real. Karsh is in denial that there's a problem - he (apparently) isn't talking to the (county) health department. And he needs to talk to the city," Munce said, who added septic impact studies range from 1975 to last year, 1998.

Peter Browning and others from the county health department have been working quietly with Munce and other parties to find solutions to the Fidalgo Island septic-failure problem. The city has documented that neither west Fidalgo Island nor southwest residents near Sugar Loaf want direct sewer service, nor do they wish to be annexed into the city. City official agree, and have said often an extension in either or both directions would be financially ruinous for those getting service. The island is too rocky and construction would be difficult. Environmental impacts will also would create nearly impossible hurdles.

"We have talked to Mr. Munce and to many others to see what would be workable to deal with these failed systems," Browning said, while cautioning restraint. "We don't want to identify (those systems) until we have solutions."

But the county planning department might have pushed that public-health discussion out into the public arena. Earlier, Karsh said he was unaware that Similk Bay was threatened, and promised to check with health department officials. Munce said it's crucial to that he do so, before any discussion about increasing residential densities on the island occurs.

But Karsh said the county said only that it would have the debate not that it would change its current zoning, which he said is correct as defined in the 1997 comprehensive plan. But Karsh admitted property owners are talking about appealing to the Growth Hearings Board or seeking help in Superior Court, actions that cost the county even more in legal fees than have already been spent.

"I'm disheartened. I'm a big supporter of growth management, and the rural element," Mayor Dean Maxwell said. "I don't support this one bit, and I don't think the rural residents of South Fidalgo will like it one bit."

Munce agreed.

"The county is opening the development spigot, and just won't admit it," Munce said.

South Fidalgo Island, county policies, its comprehensive plan and other issues will be discussed in two public hearings, 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 30, and Dec. 2, in the county building's hearing room. Public comment can be submitted through Dec. 17.