Port Angeles City Council think tank narrows focus on issues

Lodging tax policy, vacant homes, stormwater regulations and building height restrictions top list

PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles City Council has winnowed down a host of issues into four main focus areas in its first “think tank.”

The four items that council identified for future discussion Thursday were lodging tax policy, vacant homes, stormwater regulations and building height restrictions in the central business district.

Council think tanks will be held the second Tuesday of every month at 6 p.m. in the City Council chambers at City Hall, 321 E. Fifth St.

The purpose of the meetings is to “provide an informal setting where City Council can brainstorm amongst themselves and discuss policy and other ideas,” according to a notice.

No formal action will be taken at the sessions. No minutes will be drafted and no audio recordings will be made.

Regular City Council meetings are held the first and third Tuesdays of each month.

Most of the discussion at the first think tank centered on housing issues.

Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin presented Clallam County data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey that illustrated the housing crisis.

The countywide rental vacancy rate plummeted from 11.4 percent in 2010 to 1.8 percent in 2016, according to the statistics.

“This has really happened fast for us,” Schromen-Wawrin said.

Between 2010 and 2016, Clallam County lost 503 units with monthly rents of $500 or less and 845 rentals of $1,000 or less, Schromen-Wawrin said.

The county’s population grew from about 71,500 to about 74,500 during that seven-year span.

Council member Cherie Kidd reacted to the data by addressing the “elephant in the room.”

“We have been battling [state] Department of Ecology stormwater regulations,” said Kidd, a third-term council member.

“We have been fighting International Building Codes. Every three years it gets tighter and tighter. It’s a noose around our neck.”

Kidd said she has spoken with contractors at Home Depot who refuse to build in Port Angeles because of onerous stormwater regulations that do not apply in the unincorporated county.

“Government regulations are strangling our economic growth and our ability to build affordable housing,” Kidd said.

Mayor Sissi Bruch used red ink to fill six pages of large poster paper with a slew of issues that council members raised.

After the brainstorming session, the six council members who were present placed nine stickers near to the issues they felt were most important. Council member Jim Moran was absent.

The issues with the most stickers were:

• Regulations to encourage the occupancy of vacant homes.

• Balancing the use of lodging tax revenue to support new and existing events and capital projects.

• Working with Ecology on National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System stormwater regulations.

• Lifting the 45-foot height restriction to encourage housing development.

A second tier of issues identified by the council will be discussed in a future think tank.

The second-level issues were:

• Enhancing public/private partnerships.

• Improving code enforcement.

• Developing a climate action plan.

• Requiring background checks for all new committee members.

Community and Economic Development Director Nathan West said the city completed a height analysis in 2012 that showed “quite a few” opportunities for raising height restrictions.

“I think one of the concerns is that at this point in time, developers are not taking advantage of the existing height allowance, or even coming close to it, in most of the zones,” West said.

Kidd said any new proposal to raise the 45-foot maximum height in the downtown area should be discussed with the Port Angeles Downtown Association.

On vacant properties, Council member Mike French said other municipalities use a vacant property registration ordinance to encourage occupancy.

“They provide minimum standards for how a landowner should treat their vacant properties so that they don’t turn into blights,” French said.

The ordinances, which cover private homes and commercial buildings, have an annual fee to discourage extended vacancy.

“So as a city, we’re going to decide by fining people what they can do and what they can’t do?” Council member Michael Merideth asked.

Said French: “I think that we do have a problem with vacant buildings in our city where people are just not developing their properties.

“There are reasons they’re not developing, and stormwater’s a big one,” French added.

“But if you go downtown, go talk to Matthews Glass about the building that they’re right next to.”

In 2016, the city raised a fence around the dilapidated building at 208 E. Front St. near Matthews Glass to keep loiterers and panhandlers from congregating there.

Deputy Mayor Kate Dexter said the city should have a county-level discussion with the three Clallam County commissioners before taking action on housing.

“And I think it’s appropriate to have the [housing needs] assessment,” Dexter added.

Bruch suggested that the council address levels of service in a future think tank.

“We get to set that,” Bruch said.

“How many cops do we want for 1,000 people? How many firefighters?”

“What’s the level of service we expect, and then we can move forward.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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