March 13, 2021
by Pamela Roberts
Government officials hire consultants, but will they listen to them?
On February 4, 2021 the Intergovernmental Collaborative Group (ICG) held a free (to the public) “Community Conversation” with nationally known planner and engineer Charles Marohn. The ICG includes representatives from Jefferson County’s Board of Commissioners and Public Utilities District, the city of Port Townsend and the Port of Port Townsend. Marohn was paid $2000 to share his expert advice through this community session so the ICG obviously respects his knowledge, background and reputation.
Marohn is the founder of Strong Towns, an organization devoted to helping communities build financial resilience, and the author of “Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.”
In her conversation with Marohn, Jefferson County Commissioner Kate Dean stated, “We have been trying for 15 years to build a waste-water treatment system in the core area of Port Hadlock to provide urban level of services and increase our ability to create density there. We have housing providers who own land there already and want to build affordable housing at a density that reaches an economy of scale… I’m aware of your warnings about investing in big projects like this and yet the cost of doing nothing has been economic stagnation and nowhere to build affordable housing.”
NOTE: Dean’s claim that we have “nowhere to build affordable housing” is false. There are many vacant lots in Port Townsend that are zoned for multi-family buildings. These lots already have access to a sewer system. If apartments are the answer to affordable housing, apartment buildings already exist in both Port Townsend and Port Hadlock and more can be built under present conditions.
Charles Marohn responded to Dean’s assertions with the following, “I feel like the question, if I could phrase it in Strong Towns terms is; “We know we are in trouble here, we are seeing lots of negative impacts, affordable housing being one, environmental issues around septic systems being another, and we feel like the only option we have is to “go for broke”, to double down, to “ten-X” down, on a big sewer system in the hopes that will fix this problem.” I don’t think it will fix that problem. I think it will cause more problems for you. If you split up the problems in different ways and try to deal with them in that “what’s the next smallest thing we can do” mentality, what you would see is affordable housing will not be solved with a big sewer system. It will create as you said, big bills for people, large upfront costs, big developers that will work in big increments which will lead to high property values, an upward reinforcing ratio.”
Marohn continued, “If I’m looking at the region, and looking at affordable housing, to me, Port Townsend is ready to build affordable housing. I don’t know if you are ready culturally and politically, but structurally, you could put on the current framework, 100,000 people in that city. You could do that in a way that is affordable to people. That would be for the region, what success looks like from a Strong Towns standpoint.”
Marohn added, “The first step is to admit you have a problem. That is the first thing you have to confront before you can start asking the question, ‘how do we dig out of this’. The way you don’t deal with it or try to dig your way out of it, is to say, ‘can we do a big sewer project, can we do a big ‘this’ project, can we add more people?’.”
So now we have one expert consultant, Marohn, who has strongly stated the folly of building the Hadlock Sewer. Another consultant, Tetra Tech, has warned the county not to build the type of sewer system they are planning because it would have to be ripped out 20 years later and be replaced.
The question is, “Will our elected leaders listen to the consultants they hire?”
The county, encouraged by Commissioner Dean, just spent about $1.5 million exploring this sewer idea and they probably don’t want to admit it was a mistake. It’s time to stop Hadlock Sewer planning and get down to actually helping the people in our county with practical solutions, not huge projects with enormous sticker prices that will drive people out of their homes. The money spent so far on the Hadlock Sewer could have financed an upgrade to about 100 septic systems in Port Hadlock if aging systems are a concern there. We can’t afford to continue wasting money like this. The money being set aside by the county to help finance a sewer system in Port Hadlock would be better spent to help subsidize affordable housing construction in Port Townsend or septic upgrades in Port Hadlock.
Kate Dean is correct that there is a group of speculative investors who purchased land in Port Hadlock, hoping there would be a sewer built there. However, the needs of our community are better served without one.
If you fix a problem that’s not a problem, you create a solution that IS a problem!
NOTE: Quotes above are from the Feb. 4 presentation transcript. Click here to read the entire transcript of this meeting. Click here to watch the video of the meeting. Kate Dean’s question was the very first, found at the time of 1.26 min – Questions from County Commission.