Democratic Jefferson County Commissioner Kate Dean shared the following thoughts this week on the Port Hadlock Sewer project, and emphasized the valuable contributions that infrastructure projects have long played in helping rural areas.
When I moved to Quilcene in the late 1990’s, talk in the Leader and at the post office revolved around a few predictable topics: spotted owl, Growth Management and the Hadlock sewer. Our historic dairy farms were selling off their herds due to low milk prices. Rural communities across Washington were facing the loss of familiar jobs amid new environmental regulation. The future of natural resource-based economies seemed uncertain at best and- depending who you asked- the state’s 1990 Growth Management Act (GMA) was either going to be the nail in the coffin, or provide the key to a better future. Either way, the answer was probably emphatic and strongly-worded.
Little did I know, over 20 years later, we’d still be arguing over many of the same passionately-held opinions and beliefs about land use. The most current iteration is about the building of the Port Hadlock sewer. Will it bring prosperity to all or will it be the demise of rural living? I’m here to suggest that the answer is neither, but that the cost of doing nothing is highest of all.
Growth Management required counties to determine where (and how much of) different, necessary land uses would go. Port Townsend, an incorporated city, was left to do their own Comprehensive Planning. Rural counties like ours identified commercial forest and farm land and “locked in” zoning to protect those working lands so that they would not be converted and lost to development. Industrial areas like Glen Cove and the paper mill were identified so that new residential areas were not built too close to them, creating incompatibility issues. And counties were required to decide where, in their unincorporated lands, they would put density and growth in the future. Jefferson County residents, through public meetings, expensive studies and lawsuits, chose Port Hadlock as the Urban Growth Area (UGA) for this purpose.
UGAs are intended to prevent sprawl. When you identify where retail, manufacturing, multi-family housing and services can go, it does not end up spread across the rural landscape. This development pattern provides an efficient way to provide utilities to businesses and residents. But density only works where there are the services in place to support it, per GMA, which is why the sewer must be built before the added density is permitted.
Building sewers is nothing new. In fact, most people on sewer don’t give it much thought. But at some point, their city or neighborhood decided to invest in this infrastructure for the benefits it provides: density, containment of effluent and potential contaminants, the affordability of monthly service versus septic system installation or replacement. Building a sewer is not a radical act; it is something that has been done for 200 years, to the betterment of communities served.
And federal subsidies are usually needed to pull it off. In fact, it was disagreements about how to fund critical infrastructure that led our country’s founders to establish a constitutional form of government. FDR used the New Deal to pull the US out of the Great Depression and Eisenhour built the interstate highway system to connect all of America. Federal investment in infrastructure has, time and again, provided rural areas stability, economic opportunity and improved environmental health.
The Port Hadlock sewer is also not a new idea; it was a direction set over 20 years ago through an engaged public process. The new design calls for building it in the core commercial area, where property owners petitioned the Board of County Commissioners to re-ignite the project in 2017. Affordable housing providers own land in the service area and are waiting for the sewer in order to build at a density that pencils out financially. Businesses, currently constrained by low-capacity systems or land set-asides for drain fields, want to hire more employees and expand their services. These outcomes are what infrastructure investments have borne repeatedly.
This project can only be built with state and federal subsidy. The County knows that it cannot, and will not, be built on the backs of property owners who cannot afford the investment. But, like rural electrification in the 1930’s, federal support for infrastructure in under-served areas has proven to bring enormous benefits for generations to come. Providing sewer is a way to bring dignity, equity and opportunity to rural areas that cannot bear the cost alone.
Jefferson County has done a good job of protecting working lands and the environment, but it has arguably failed to provide the necessary infrastructure for our rural communities to innovate and thrive. Just as people resisted the introduction of the telephone in homes in the 1930’s, change generates fear and speculation. I urge Jefferson County residents to engage in planning processes, such as the Planning Commission and Comprehensive Planning to learn how carefully and intentionally decision are made, often by their neighbors and friends who volunteer for this hard and often thankless work.
With state and federal stimulus dollars, we have a real shot at getting the Port Hadlock sewer built in the near future. Let’s rally around this project with our local businesses and housing providers to envision more jobs, more housing and more prosperity. Infrastructure should be the backbone of our communities- not a privilege only for those lucky enough to afford it.
Kate Dean is the Chair of the Jefferson County Board of County Commissioners. She urges people interested in the project to attend a virtual public meeting on April 15th from 5-8pm. For more information: https://www.co.jefferson.wa.us/1158/Port-Hadlock-Wastewater-System