Planned development travels bumpy road
July 22, 2021
Bill Coons is Wahkiakum County assessor, but he has recently worn a new hat which is that of property developer.
More specifically, Coons is spearheading a proposed project called the East Cathlamet Housing Opportunity (ECHO) where he intends to develop eight tiny homes to provide affordable housing to the area. The first time developer has expressed good intentions for the proposed project, but a few obstacles have made it a bumpy ride.
“I wanted to do some good,” Coons explained. “It’s been obvious to me for a long time that there has been a tremendous need for affordable housing in this area.”
Coons decided he would use land he acquired in East Cathlamet to put in infrastructure, water, power, and septic. To him, tiny homes made the most sense. His neighbors, however, would not agree.
Last spring, Coons approached the county’s building and planning department to determine next steps. He was instructed to prepare a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) checklist which is required by governmental agencies to consider the environmental impact of a proposal before making decisions. If the project was deemed environmentally adverse, Coons would be required to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS). An EIS is prepared to identify probable impacts on the quality of the environment, analyze the findings, and be used by authorities to suggest alternative plans.
In April, Coons filled out the nine-page SEPA checklist and submitted it to the county building and planning department which, in May, issued a Determination of Non-significance (DNS) letter for Coons and the project.
According to Washington state code, a DNS means the proposal is not likely to have a significant adverse environmental impact, and therefore an EIS is not required.
Unbeknownst to Coons, the county sent the letter to people in the neighborhood of the proposed project. And Coons said he was shocked that the determination was also published in The Wahkiakum County Eagle and confounded by the project description: “Low-income tiny home park.”
“I’m still trying to figure out why those two words got pulled out from page seven and got put there, front and center,” Coons said.
The widespread communication about the low-income development sparked outrage from neighbors within 500 feet of the proposed site. During the county’s allowed comment period, neighbors cited potential adverse effects to the area including increased traffic, lowered property value, decreased security and safety, greater demand for water, and undesirable housing units.
One neighbor’s comment criticized the county for considering the project proposal: “This situation is extremely disappointing and has created a renewed distrust that our government is not looking out for what is best for our community but is focused on the individual benefits of our elected officials.”
In addition to the written criticism, a private property lawyer from Erickson & Associates in Vancouver challenged the county’s DNS as a representative of one of the neighbors. This triggered the county’s Prosecuting Attorney Dan Bigelow to step in and assess the county’s decision.
According to Bigelow, the state requires a SEPA checklist for developments of at least four dwelling units. However, the state has allowed exemptions based on an individual county’s requirements and local conditions. Citing county code: “The County establishes the following exempt levels for minor new construction based on local conditions: For residential dwelling units up to 20 dwelling units.”
The county therefore did not require Coons to submit a SEPA checklist and informed him that he could continue his project. His neighbors continued to protest with slurs and vulgar words painted on signs and fences on adjoining properties.
“It’s amazing how neighbors think they have the right to dictate what other people do with their property,” Coons commented.
Coons is moving ahead with his eight tiny home development on the two parcels in east Cathlamet. He’s still learning the ropes of development but continues to stay true to his mission.
“I think it’s a fundamental human right to deserve a clean, dry, place to live for people without a lot of income,” Coons said. “We’re going to figure it out for those folks.”
Coons will offer home buyers individual lots to lease as early as February of 2022.