Incorporation decision looms for Sudden Valley

Roger Bull is a Sudden Valley board member and chair of the Sudden Valley City Committee, the group spearheading the area’s move to possible incorporation. Bull said he believes an incorporated Sudden Valley would bring in about $2.5 million a year in revenue, with an estimated expenditures budget of about $2 million.

   For years, Sudden Valley has tinkered with the idea of incorporation, an idea driven by concerns within the private community that the public taxes they pay aren’t providing enough benefit, and that the community could better manage itself.
   In 2001, those efforts received a boost when Sudden Valley was designated an Urban Growth Area, a vital stepping stone to incorporation. Now, four years later, plans for incorporation are finally being presented to the community. The coming months will be a turning point for the community, which projects the need for more funding in years ahead. If the community is to go forward with incorporation, residents must now agree on a plan to be sent to the county, proving they can make it on their own
   The first issue at hand for advocates of incorporation is stirring up community support in the form of a letter to the county, which must be signed by 10 percent, or approximately 246, of the community’s residents who voted in the last election. If accepted by the county, Sudden Valley will then need to draft a study, outlining its plans for operating as a city.
   According to Roger Bull, a Sudden Valley board member and chair of the Sudden Valley City Committee, these two issues should not be difficult to complete, but will need funding. Much of the information for the study was already gathered in 2001 when it was submitted to gain status as an Urban Growth Area.
   Bull said assembling information about boundaries, utility costs, density and environmental needs will also take little work, as the community’s boundaries are already set, their infrastructure is in place and the necessary studies have been done. He said some of the information will need updating, but because so much is ready to go, the cost of the study, estimated between $10,000 to $12,000, will be much lower than if they were starting from scratch.
   Funding for the study might be difficult, according to Bull. If a study is funded, it will be by the people of Sudden Valley; there is, however, also a chance of some funding from the county.
   If the study is approved by the county, then the incorporation issue will go onto the general ballot, and could be voted on by Sudden Valley residents as early as November 2006.

Economic questions
   Sudden Valley’s fiscal plan for incorporation has raised questions from opponents and stakeholders when looking at its viability as a city. The community, originally planned as a resort, is mostly residential and lacks a significant commercial base. According to Bull, there are about 12 businesses in Sudden Valley’s small shopping center, and about 60 home-based businesses listed on the community’s Web-site.
   County Council member Barbara Brenner said despite not seeing any recent plans from Sudden Valley, she can’t see the area surviving as a city without a larger commercial base from which to raise revenue.
   “Revenue doesn’t come on the backs of residential development,” she said. Although the community will generate some funds from the construction of homes, she said this would only be a short-term gain. According to Brenner, if the city doesn’t add businesses, they will have to impose high taxes, something she believes won’t happen because of their history as a low-cost community.

Incorporation options
   Bull said Sudden Valley does have a number of viable funding options beyond its residential tax base. He also makes sure to note these ideas will likely evolve as the community explores incorporation.
   For example, it is possible to double the size of the community’s shopping center if current zoning laws stay the same after incorporation, he said. According to Bull, current zoning, approved by the county in 2001, also allows for the building of a school, retirement community, community center and ball fields, with a small amount of commercial space left over. Bull said it is important to remember that big projects will never be a reality in Sudden Valley.
   In addition to the option of adding businesses, Bull said an incorporated Sudden Valley could draw income from state revenues from liquor taxes, gasoline taxes and some state taxes, which come back to municipalities based on population. If incorporated, the community would be able to collect some of the taxes from the county’s general fund, and also receive utility taxes, something an unincorporated part of the county can’t do.

   Funding for roads has been a focal point for advocates of Sudden Valley’s incorporation. The community currently funds its own 45 miles of private roads using a portion of the Sudden Valley Community Association’s dues. On top of that, residents also pay road taxes to the county for public roads, something they get little benefit from within the community.
   “This is money that the city can raise, which Sudden Valley residents are now paying to the county,” said Bull.
   The estimate for the yearly county road taxes residents pay is $750,000; according to Bull an incorporated Sudden Valley would only need $500,000 in tax revenues to maintain their own roads. Also factored into the community’s current tax situation are the Sudden Valley Community Association funds that pay for security within its gates, areas which are not patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department.

   Sudden Valley currently uses many services provided by the county, and a city of Sudden Valley would do much of the same, said Bull. “You keep the incorporated village small, and make use of the services the county does provide, such as libraries, schools, fire departments and hospitals,” he said.
   The community association could also play a role in funding infrastructure, such as a parks department, depending on the residents’ approval.
   A reasonable annual budget for a city the size of Sudden Valley, including the money to pay for county services, is about $2 million, according to Bull. He projects their city could bring in approximately $2.5 million in revenues annually, leaving a small surplus.
   Bellingham City Council member John Watts said if Sudden Valley decided to proceed with incorporation plans, it would be severely underestimating what it needs to really be a city. He said many existing cities in Washington are struggling to generate adequate funding, and based on the plans he’s seen, some expenditures have been left out of the budget, specifically a proper storm-water management system, which is quite costly.
   Watts said the big unanswered question that still remains is whether Sudden Valley could survive without a business base. He said an expanded business district, which would increase traffic, is not appropriate for the community, because of the increase in runoff it would contribute to the watershed.

Watershed-development issues
   The idea of Sudden Valley incorporating continues to raise concerns about population density affecting the health of Lake Whatcom, which provides drinking water to about 85,000 local residents.
   Growth in the basin and Sudden Valley maintains strong. According to Hal Hart, director of planning and development services for Whatcom County, in the last four years, a pent-up demand for housing was released in the watershed after a sewer moratorium was lifted in 2001. Of the building permits issued in the county’s portion of the watershed, most of which are residential, 50 percent to 60 percent were in Sudden Valley, he said.
   According to Hart, the county issued 85 building permits for the Lake Whatcom watershed in 2001. By 2004, the number had risen to 264. “That’s real healthy growth,” said Hart. He said the number of permits is not expected to rise much more in coming years.
   Within Sudden Valley, there are about 3,200 lots, of which 2,400 have homes. Bull said about 200 homes were built in 2004 and 2005; he anticipates this growth will continue for another year before declining. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sudden Valley reach 3,000 homes; I think that’s inevitable, given the pressures for housing in the county.”
   According to Hart, the county started down-zoning land a few years ago to slow growth and strain on the lake. During that time, Sudden Valley did its own density-reduction program, taking almost 1,400 lots out of production from the original total of 4,645.
   Despite the density reduction, water quality and phosphorus levels in Lake Whatcom remain an issue. According to Watts, the issue has been further compounded recently by less water being diverted into the lake from the Nooksack River, and Georgia Pacific ending its water use. The result, he said, is less circulation of clean water and flushing of dirty water. Problems now show up quicker, he said. Austin Creek, a watershed tributary, also runs right through the community, feeding 17 percent of the watershed, said Watts.
   Bull said Sudden Valley is aware of the problems created by runoff, and the community has taken actions in recent years to minimize the release of pollutants by avoiding development on lots near streams, cutting down on pesticides and fertilizers on the golf course and tightening rules about clearing private land.
   The community also put together a team of 10 scientists earlier this year, despite not being required to conduct an environmental impact study for incorporation. According to Bull, the group concluded that while phosphorous was a problem, reasons for other contaminants are linked to shallow water in the northern basin of the lake being heated during summer months, promoting growth of bacteria and other organisms.
   The city of Bellingham remains a major stakeholder in regard to Lake Whatcom’s water quality, because it has to absorb the costs to treat drinking water. Watts said preventing water quality from deteriorating— rather than having to treat dirty water— is a top priority for the city. He is not sure, however, if Sudden Valley is as committed, and said Sudden Valley has been resistant to fund programs aiding Lake Whatcom in the past, because they strive to avoid extras and maintain their low-cost community. As past evidence, he cites a land acquisition and preservation ordinance, which raised funds by taxing water use in Bellingham and Sudden Valley. Instead of using the Lake Whatcom Water District as they had been doing, Sudden Valley then began using an underutilized water treatment plant and buying less water from Bellingham.
   “That indicates to me a type of thinking that is not community wide,” said Watts.
   A study on watershed quality may soon offer more definitive answers. The state department of ecology will release a Total Maximum Daily Load report next year on Lake Whatcom; Watts said the report will feature computer modeling and will track changes and pinpoint problem areas.
   Despite criticism from the city of Bellingham, the idea of incorporation in Sudden Valley will continue, Bull said. Different plans will soon be debated in the community, to gauge community support.
   If a decision is made to move forward by early 2006, and the required paper work is approved, Bull said Sudden Valley could potentially vote for incorporation in the November 2006 general election.


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