East Blaine neighborhood protests LID charges

Council_SG-1By Steve Guntli

Residents of an East Blaine neighborhood came out to a Blaine City Council meeting this week to voice their unhappiness with a new municipal project.

The city of Blaine is expanding sewer services to the Vista Terrace neighborhood by forming Local Improvement District (LID) 35. Under a sewer LID, property owners are responsible for sharing the costs of constructing and connecting to the city’s sewer system. According to city assessments, each property owner will need to pay $15,705 for the construction of the sewer lines.

On May 23, the city held a special council meeting to take input from the community on the project. The council will take the comments under advisement and decide whether or not to approve the ordinance, possibly by the June 13 council meeting. Jon Sitkin, Blaine’s city attorney, was present to discuss the legal ramifications of the LID.

The Vista Terrace neighborhood has 60 properties and 53 homes. Four of those homes are vacant, and another five are already on the city’s sewer system. Forty-eight homes have septic tanks, 31 of which were either installed before 1985 or before permits were required.

The LID was proposed in 2010 and approved in early 2011. At the time, only one home in the neighborhood had a failing septic system. Since then, three more systems have failed, which public works director Ravyn Whitewolf said is in line with the city’s estimates. The city decided to fast track the project in 2013 to prevent any more septic system failures.

“LIDs are fairly common,” Whitewolf said. “Much of this city’s infrastructure was built via LIDs.”

One point of dispute had been GFF charges. GFFs, or general facility fees, represent the cost of existing infrastructure that new connections are required to pay for in order to join, or buy into, the system.

In 2009, the city council, facing a stagnant economy and low growth, voted to impose a five-year moratorium on GFFs for developers and homeowners as an incentive to build in Blaine. However, the council reversed their decision in 2012, claiming the moratorium had not stimulated the economy enough to justify keeping it in place.

Vista Terrace residents who signed on to the LID in 2010 without GFFs were angry that the fees have been reinstated, but last month the city voted to use a grant from the state department of ecology (DOE) to cover the GFF fees and connection costs for each property.

The city has allayed other costs to compensate for the fact that the LID will bear a higher cost than the original 2011 estimate. In addition to covering the GFF and connection costs, the city absorbed $136,261 from the LID for the H Street portion of the project.

The approximately $40,000 left over from the DOE grant may be used to help residents for whom it would be a hardship to pay in whole or in part. Residents can opt to pay the lump sum up front with no interest, or pay off monthly installments of about $75-$88 per month. The balance can be paid at any time without penalty. Deferments may be available for those who need them, but those decisions will be determined by the Whatcom County Department of Health.

Despite the efforts from the city, many residents are still unhappy with the added burden.

Bill Bender, a long-time resident of the Vista Terrace neighborhood, spoke out at the public hearing.

“I feel used and abused,” he said. “I don’t see why we should have to be responsible for covering these charges. We didn’t want a sewer, we shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

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