Freeland group ends legal challenge over Harbor Inn purchase

— Created September 21, 2022 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Freeland Concerned Citizens LLC has ended its legal challenge over the purchase of Harbor Inn in order to provide transitional and supportive housing.

The motel was sold to the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in July, and the Freeland group had sought an injunction to stop the sale and the transfer of $1.5 million from Island County to aid in LIHI’s purchase. Island County, LIHI, the state Department of Commerce and former motel owner Lucky Bones were all named in the motion. Island County Superior Court Judge Carolynn Cliff denied the request for a preliminary injunction in August, but said she would be willing to listen to arguments concerning zoning at a hearing in September.

“The judge ruled against us; that’s just the way that goes,” said David Adams, managing partner in Freeland Concerned Citizens LLC. “But the judge did leave a door open. We looked at that and the time frame available in which we could narrow the original lawsuit, but we felt we couldn’t do it in that time. So we requested a dismissal without prejudice. The judge granted the dismissal [Sept. 6] and the plaintiffs had 10 days to appeal the ruling and they didn’t. So it’s over.”

But, Adams told Whidbey Weekly by phone, in a way it’s not over.

“Our concern about LIHI, that’s over,” he said. “Our concern about the Island County Planning Department and the county commissioners, subsequently, still continues. Are they going to issue permits fairly and properly? If LIHI gets a permit, they get a permit. If Planning issued a permit that’s not proper, that’s not LIHI’s fault, that’s the county’s fault.”

“We’re seeing how this moves forward,” agreed Gary Wray, with Freeland Concerned Citizens. “We want to make sure laws are followed. The contract has been signed. Money has changed hands. We can’t undo that. But LIHI has a 40-year obligation to the county. If the property is ever not used for transitional housing, that $1.5 million has to come back to the county.”

Adams said while FCC will continue to watch out for zoning issues or other permitting issues, the quarrel with the deal has never been about how LIHI plans to use the former motel.

“From the beginning, this has never been about homeless people being there,” he said. “It was about whoever was to be there needs to be there safely. Whatever changes there are to the structure need to be done properly, legally and within code. That has always been the concern from day one. It was nothing personal against LIHI, just, is this going to be done properly?”

Because the case was dismissed without prejudice, it means FCC could file motions in the future. Adams said they still have concerns over a couple of issues.

“Our biggest concern is the issuance of permits and a major concern is the septic system,” he said. “There are also health and safety issues that have to be met. If you’ve got a motel, and I’m not saying it’s different or less, but if they’re putting people there 24 hours a day, you’ve got to make sure the sprinkler system and electrical systems are up to date to handle that additional type of residency.”

Adams told Whidbey Weekly many people felt county commissioners had rushed the deal through, despite concerns raised by residents.

“Clearly, the county could have done a much better job communicating it, in our opinion, and it gave the appearance of being rushed,” he said.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon, however, met with members of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce and hosted a community information meeting about the proposal in addition to talking with people about it at her weekly public “Tea with Melanie” meetings. But in a letter to Freeland chamber members distributed last week, chamber president Chet Ross said while the chamber will not be involved in any litigation concerning Harbor Inn/LIHI, he still had concerns.

“This is a very complicated situation with many arms of nuance,” he wrote. “There are issues of lack of public participation, and concerns about the buildings, the age of the buildings as related to this change of Zoning Land Use, which also requires updating to current fire codes, water hookups/meters per unit, the condition of this approximately 40-year-old septic system, especially given the increase 24/7 occupancy of full time living with kitchens/laundry.

“Our main message, at this time, is that we feel process involving the public did not comply with the Open Public Meetings Act regulations, nor with Island County’s Land Use Zoning Regulations, nor with substantial health and safety issues of fire codes and septic capacity and regulations,” Ross concluded.

The letter did say the chamber may consider seeking donations from business members and the community in the future to cover attorney work, but nothing specific was mentioned.

Members of Freeland Concerned Citizens LLC plan to keep a close watch.

“We’re going to watch our county officials, who are responsible to the taxpayers, to see what they do,” Adams said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, the question is whether that is going to be redeveloped properly and is it going to conform to the standards everyone else is required to meet?”