Let’s not flush an affordable neighborhood

For most of the folks present at Thursday’s update on the south-end sewer saga, the news was good. Kitsap County Sewer District 7, which operates the Fort Ward treatment plant, does have the capacity to accommodate the four south-end neighborhoods that have asked for sewers.

Costs can be allocated in such a way that those who don’t want to hook up now can defer the vast majority of their expenses until later. The costs of roughly $30,000 per home are feasible. And the city council seems willing to move ahead.

But for the folks from Emerald Heights, the news was a disaster. While $30,000 may be affordable to waterfront residents, that’s a huge bite in an area where home prices are perhaps a quarter of the price commanded by some homes on Rockaway, Pleasant Beach and Point White.

One Emerald Heights resident left Thursday’s meeting shaking her head.

“I’m a third-generation islander,” she said, “and all my friends have moved to Poulsbo. I’m afraid this old dinosaur is getting her old bones moved awfully fast.”

Emerald Heights, plagued by septic problems for years, has been the driving force in the whole sewer debate. Whenever the issue bogged down – over concerns that some wanted sewer for the sake of convenience, or so they could build on their drainfield – the conversation turned back to Emerald Heights, the one neighborhood whose need was never questioned.

The irony is worthy of O. Henry – the neighborhood that the politicians wanted to help can’t afford to accept the proffered solution.

To some extent, the cost problem is one that the council created, albeit inadvertently. Fearing that sewers would facilitate growth, the council sharply limited the geographic areas that could hook up, which in turn limits the number of homes across which fixed costs can be spread. And the council also determined that all sewer costs must be borne by the neighborhoods involved, not by the general taxpayer.

That latter condition, we think, needs rethinking.

With respect to the three waterfront neighborhoods, the whole debate has been couched in terms of environmental stewardship, and whether City Hall should help those who want to help themselves. While those issues do pertain to Emerald Heights, another consideration comes into play: affordable housing.

The Emerald Heights neighborhood has some 43 perfectly fine homes that are among the most affordable on the island. Indeed, most of them sell for a good deal less than the houses built under the city’s “affordable” program.

A sewer-construction subsidy for one neighborhood and not others would certainly raise questions of equity. But helping preserve a thriving neighborhood might be the best affordable-housing deal we can find.

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