Whether they're annexed or form their own city, residents of the area of Franklin County known as the "doughnut hole" are about to have their lives changed.
The rural neighborhood filled with rambling homes and horse pastures won't be an unincorporated part of the county much longer.
Whether the doughnut hole becomes part of Pasco or a new city remains uncertain, but each side is digging in and fighting for its position -- Citizens for Lifestyle Preservation by turning in signatures on an incorporation petition, and Pasco by moving forward with public hearings to annex part of the doughnut hole despite a lawsuit trying to stop it.
On Friday, county auditors certified that the citizen group had the 268 registered voters it needs to put the measure to a vote.
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For doughnut hole residents who oppose annexation, the issue is a quintessentially American one of independence, choice and property rights.
"This is an aggressive takeover of an area that doesn't want it," said Mark MacFarlan, one of the chief proponents of incorporating the doughnut hole as its own city.
But for Pasco city officials, it's a matter of need and efficiency.
City officials have said they can provide services more efficiently by annexing the area, which is an island of county land surrounded by the city.
The annexation would bring more money into the city's budget through property taxes from the doughnut hole, and by boosting the city's share of state gas taxes, liquor taxes and liquor profits -- money that's paid out based on population.
Regardless of which proposal wins, the doughnut hole's fate could have ripple effects throughout the Tri-Cities. The Herald is taking a look at the pros and cons of annexation and incorporation to give residents a glimpse at what shape the future might take for this part of Franklin County -- and the surrounding area.
The city began public discussions about annexation in July 2011, when the council opted to try negotiating an agreement with Franklin Fire District 3 and the Franklin County Commission on the details of annexing the area, which has been earmarked for future city growth since the '90s.
The doughnut hole area generally is south of Argent Road between Road 100 on the west and Road 44 to the east and Sylvester and Court streets to the south.
Hundreds of residents poured into several public meetings on the issue, many of them voicing concerns or fears that annexation would alter the rural character of the doughnut hole that attracted them to live there.
Primary among those concerns was that annexation would result in denser development -- more houses, closer together -- and that they wouldn't be able to keep the horse pastures and wide, open spaces that they love.
In May, a newly formed group called Citizens for Lifestyle Preservation announced plans to create its own city and began gathering petition signatures to take the incorporation proposal to a vote.
Franklin County commissioners then chose to stay out of annexation discussions to maintain neutrality on what had become a controversial issue.
With talks failing and the effort under way to incorporate a new city called Riverview, the Pasco City Council on June 18 voted 4-3 to go ahead with annexing a portion of the doughnut hole using powers of attorney agreeing to annexation that were signed by a number of doughnut hole residents when they became Pasco water customers.
City Manager Gary Crutchfield told the council at the time that they could make a pre-emptive strike against incorporation by pulling enough residents out of the potential new city and into Pasco to stop the new city from forming.
Riverview would need to have at least 3,000 residents to be eligible for an incorporation vote under state law. About 4,000 people live in the doughnut hole, but the annexation currently under way would absorb about 1,400 of those -- leaving fewer than 3,000 and killing incorporation efforts.
Mayor Matt Watkins, Mayor Pro Tem Rebecca Francik and Councilmen Saul Martinez and Mike Garrison voted in favor of initiating the annexation using the utility agreements.
Councilmen Al Yenney, Tom Larsen and Bob Hoffmann voted no.
In September, members of Citizens for Lifestyle Preservation sued in Franklin County Superior Court trying to stop the annexation.
The lawsuit claims that some of the utility agreements used to start the annexation were invalid because they weren't properly notarized.
A response filed by the city claims that it wasn't necessary to have the documents notarized anyway and that the people who filed the suit misread the state's annexation law. The city is asking the judge to dismiss the suit.
A hearing is set in the case Monday.
Doughnut hole residents took a step toward forming their own city Oct. 3 when they delivered an estimated 982 signatures to Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton.
On Friday, Beaton's staff finished verifying the signatures to make sure each person who signed is a registered voter in the area and that the signature matches the registration.
Beaton will now notify the county commission to set a public hearing within 60 days.
If the county commissioners don't object, the incorporation measure then goes to a special election 60 days or more after the hearing, according to information from the auditor's office. It takes a simple majority to pass, but if fewer than 40 percent of voters are in favor, the measure can't be put on the ballot again for three years.
Separate elections have to be held for offices such as the mayor and city council members.
Proponents of incorporation have said that the new city won't have a city hall or city departments, but instead will contract with other jurisdictions or companies for typical municipal services such as police and fire protection, road maintenance, utilities and trash pick-up. Positions such as the mayor and city council members would be filled by volunteers.
They say that they're planning for the new city by looking at other examples of cities that have incorporated and then contracted for services.
Two of those proponents -- Roger Lenk and Jack Martincavage -- said they have experience working in contract cities like the one they're looking to form.
Martincavage previously lived in Lakewood, Calif., which became the nation's first contract city when it formed in 1954 as a way to avoid being annexed by nearby Long Beach.
He served as one of the city's public safety commissioners in the '70s and was one of the fire department's chief officers, he told the Herald.
"It's almost a blueprint of how to go about this," he said of Lakewood's history.
MacFarlan said he believes the new city would be in a position to negotiate better rates for some services than residents now pay.
What he believes is just as important as the details of how the new city would work, is that the new city would give its residents a chance to control their own destiny and preserve their property rights.
"We will be a truly representative city," he said. "You will know the people who represent you."
Meanwhile, despite the lawsuit, Pasco is proceeding with steps toward annexation with public hearings before the planning commission at 7 p.m. Thursday and the city council at 7 p.m. Oct. 29.
"We can keep moving forward. That's what the city intends to do," Crutchfield said. "If the court tells us we have to stop, we'll stop."
The Oct. 29 hearing theoretically is the last step before the council can take a final vote to annex the land. City officials said it's unlikely the council will make a decision the same night, but a vote could come before the end of the year depending on how the council decides to proceed.
The city recently completed a fact-finding process involving a committee made up of doughnut hole residents.
Crutchfield said the city sent letters to all of the property owners in the portion of the doughnut hole being annexed, which includes close to everything between Road 52 and Road 68 south of a Franklin County Irrigation District canal. There are about 500 homes in the area with a collective value of about $121 million.
The city received 20 applications, and selected 12 people to sit on the committee and evaluate a matrix comparing current conditions on a variety of issues -- such as taxes, fees, zoning, police and fire protection -- to those residents would experience in the city.
Applicants were asked whether they agreed with annexation, disagreed or were neutral or needed more information. Documents provided by the city indicate that of the 12 members, one person -- MacFarlan -- was against annexation. He also was the only person of the 20 who applied who indicated he opposed annexation.
Three members of the committee identified themselves as favoring annexation. The remaining eight members said on their applications that they're neutral or needed more information.
The document produced by the committee was published about a week ago and is available on the city's website.
The group plans a public meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Mark Twain Elementary School to answer questions about the comparison document.
MacFarlan told the Herald he thought committee participants overall did thoughtful work, but he expressed some skepticism about the city's screening process for selecting members.
"I think a lot of the individuals were sincere, but I think a large number were placed there by the city," he said.
And he said that while he believes most of the facts presented in the comparison document are accurate, he questions whether comparing city vs. county was the right question to ask from the start.
"The question isn't just, 'What are the taxes going to be?' " he said. "The question is, 'Will the quality of life be the same?' "