Community Forum Hears La Conner’s Growth Will Continue – La Conner Weekly News
About 30 city and area residents gathered last Thursday evening, March 31, at the La Conner School District Auditorium, seeking answers to “How is our city growing?” and ask their own questions during a workshop sponsored by the Town of La Conner’s communications committee.
A five-member panel was assembled to provide insight into the factors shaping housing growth from a local, county and state perspective. Skagit County Planning Director Hal Hart also started with a question: “Where does growth generally go? In Washington, counties follow state legislation, the Growth Management Act, to guide development decisions. County and municipal governments create comprehensive long-range plans.
Growth is directed to cities and urban growth areas, where transportation, sewer, water and utility infrastructure is concentrated.
Hart noted that no one predicted the population growth in western Washington during this century. While Skagit County grew by 14%, Snohomish County grew by 18%. Skagit County’s population of 130,000 is expected to reach 155,000 by 2036, an increase of 19%.
City Administrator Scott Thomas had a question following his assertion, “We’re going to grow. (The question is) how much and where does it go? For La Conner, this could represent 1,200 inhabitants in 2036, an increase of 23.7% compared to the 970 inhabitants estimated by the urban planner Michael Davolio.
“We’re expecting more people than we have places to put them on,” Thomas said. In 2017, there were 544 residences, places to live. This number has increased to 560 in 2021. It predicts density, the number of people living in a house, because the population is growing faster than the built environment. House prices will continue to rise due to the limited supply of housing.
Davolio predicts that La Conner will exceed 1,000 over the next two years and named the challenge as “providing enough properties for housing development. He cited the City’s sale of the Hedlin’s Maple Avenue property and the March 31 public hearing on the proposed 20-unit condominium building on Center and Fourth streets as contentious projects. He recommended the latter get a conditional use permit “not because it was a big project, but because it was up to (the city’s) code.”
Marna Hanneman, chair of La Conner’s planning commission followed. She noted that the planning commission had advised against the condominium project, saying that “sometimes the rules have to be broken, (sometimes) they have to be changed. It is very difficult to go against the rating report.
La Conner resident Gary Nelson, owner of Nelson Lumber Construction and board member of Skagit Habitat for Humanity, said there is enough housing in La Conner, pointing out that on average, not even two people lived in each of the 560 houses. The city lacks affordable housing. It’s been 25 years since South Park, now Channel Cove, added some 25 low-income housing units to the community, Nelson pointed out.
He offered a vision and a challenge: “As a community, we have to decide what we want our city to look like. We’re fine with density, but need to plan accordingly. This needs to be done with a long term plan in place. The affordable housing target of the city’s comprehensive plan under the Growth Management Act has not been met for the past 20 years, he said.
The first curated question presented by moderator Wende Sanderson, president of the Skagit League of Women Voters, asked “What is affordable housing? Nelson responded that the federal criteria is that 30% of household income be budgeted for housing and spending more people in a “danger zone.” The maximum directive costs are $300,000, he said. At Habitat, they need grants to build a 1,100 square foot house.
Davolio responded that rental housing is scarce locally.
Davolio said the city isn’t considering restricting short-term rentals in response to that issue.
Asked about the city’s sale of the Hedlin property after buying it, Thomas said funds weren’t budgeted for his purchase and the city couldn’t afford it, “that the only option was d ‘go develop it’. Davolio had earlier pointed out that 24,000 square feet was reserved for a park.
The evening began with handouts and attendees were invited to ask questions on one side and list what they appreciate and love about living at La Conner. Hanneman closed the presentation with the response “It’s the closest thing I have to living in an ancestral home with a small town convention.”
The Communications Committee, led by City Council members MaryLee Chamberlain and Rick Dole, moved quickly to organize the workshop five weeks after their first meeting. Committee members include Heather Carter, Maureen Harlan, Ken Stern, Hanneman and Thomas. They are planning a series of community conversations on issues of interest to the community. They encourage residents to “participate in shaping how we understand and navigate the future together”.
The first panelists were Laura Hodgson and Lexine Long, senior planners with the state Department of Commerce, participating via video.