Waterfront pathway process complicated by federal regulations

Owners of five Beach Drive properties are alarmed anew at news the Port Orchard City Council has taken the next step toward construction of a public waterfront pathway that could go right through their homes.

The city recently approved a contract that sets in motion steps for possible acquisition of the properties by eminent domain. But other options are being considered, and taking of the properties is far from a done deal, City Engineer Mark Dorsey stressed. The contract includes financial capacity and authority for Universal Field Services to negotiate with the property owners on total acquisition, when and if the city council gives the OK.

The council needs to know the pros and cons of all options, Dorsey said, which is why the contract includes the most extreme scenario. Under other scenarios, the houses could be left standing, but there are liability and public safety issues.

Property owners are miffed that city officials didn’t personally contact each of them before the contract was approved. To explain why, we need to get down into the weeds, so hang with me here.

First, let’s jump back to 2011. The property owners have known for at least two years that eminent domain is a possibility. The issue came up in a properly noticed public meeting in which the council discussed early design of the pathway, causing an uproar from the property owners. According to homeowner Randy Jones, then-Mayor Lary Coppola visited him a day or two after the meeting. Coppola assured Jones that the eminent domain option was at that time hypothetical and the taking of his home was not imminent, Jones recently said.

That’s still the case. It will take the city a long time to jump through the hoops of regulations put into play by a $300,000 federal grant the city accepted under previous Mayor Kim Abel for preliminary design of the pathway.

The grant requires Port Orchard to complete the whole path, one way or another — through the homes or around them — or the city must return the $300,000.

The Bay Street Pedestrian Pathway is seen as a great amenity by most city officials. Two segments are already completed and have been well-used. So it’s unlikely the city will turn back now, but that’s yet another option the council will weigh, according to Dorsey.

The city faces the same use-it-or-lose it issue with the Tremont Street Corridor, where more than $3 million in federal funds were used for design. According to Dorsey, the federal government, dispersing money through the state Department of Transportation, used to spread money around “like peanut butter,” leaving a trail of partially completed public works projects. Since 2009, the feds require assurance grant-supported projects will be completed, making it harder on public officials, but reducing the likelihood that taxpayers’ money will be squandered on nice ideas never executed.

So why didn’t Port Orchard officials recently come knocking at the property owners’ doors? Under one of the federal grant regulations, the city must use an intermediary to contact residents about the potential taking of their properties to avoid the appearance of “collusion,” according to Dorsey. The law requires a clean division of roles. The city, acting on the public’s behalf, could be seen as having a conflict of interest were any staff members or elected officials to discuss the eminent domain issue with property owners outside of a public meeting.

Speaking of which, the council takes public comment during its meetings. The next one is at 7 p.m. Tuesday at city hall, 216, Prospect St.

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