A routine vote Wednesday on a new subdivison in unincorporated Franklin County reopened tensions between county commissioners and the Pasco School District.
Franklin County commissioners gave the go-ahead for a 44-lot subdivision to be built on 29.3 acres near Kohler and Burns roads northwest of Pasco.
Commissioner Brad Peck accused the Pasco School District of charging a "de facto" impact fee to the project's developers, Dave Greeno and Big Sky Developers LLC, in exchange for keeping the project from going through a long environmental review.
The school district has an agreement with the city of Pasco to allow for impact fees on new construction to help pay for new schools. The fees can be charged within city limits, but the county commission has refused to approve allowing them for unincorporated developments.
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"My impressions are they are meeting with developers and offering developers a choice of either 'voluntarily,' in quotations, paying mitigation or risk having the school district challenge the SEPA evaluation," Peck said after the meeting.
An extended State Environmental Policy Act process can lead to extra costs and even lawsuits for developers, he said.
"I don't know that I would go so far as to call it extortion, but it certainly comes across as a bit of a strong-armed tactic," Peck said.
In a statement, school district spokeswoman Leslee Caul said Peck shows a lack of understanding of the law, the SEPA process and mitigation fees.
"Not only has the district used mitigation and impact fees in a completely legal manner, it has done so in a way that reduces the cost of bonds to all Pasco taxpayers," Caul wrote.
"It is well-known that one of the county commissioners is backing school board candidates who are running against incumbent board members," Caul wrote. "This is a false statement and we believe it was made for political purposes. We trust Pasco voters will get the facts and look at the district's record when making decisions and casting votes."
Caul declined to tell the Herald which commissioner opposes school board members, but Peck is the chairman of the Franklin County Republican Central Committee.
The committee has donated $1,500 each to the campaigns of Steve Christensen, who is challenging incumbent board member Bill Leggett; Amy Phillips, challenger to incumbent board member Darrell Toombs; and Javier Ruiz, who is facing school board President Sherry Lancon, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Peck said later Wednesday that his statements on the school district had nothing to do with politics, adding that the donations are made based on the majority vote of all precinct committee officers.
"For the school district to somehow suggest that there is direct connection between the Franklin County Republican Central Committee and the Board of Commissioners is inappropriate," Peck said. "There is no connection and it is an inappropriate assertion to make. Their functions and their responsibilities are entirely separate."
Commissioners have clashed with the school district in the past. In January, commissioners unanimously issued a resolution of support for the school district's $46.8 million bond proposal. But the resolution included criticism of the school district for its handling of the bond, its finances and the collection of impact fees.
"There is not one commissioner opposed to impact fees in the county, there are three commissioners," Peck said.
The donations from the Republican committee in non-partisan races are meant to encourage people to get involved in politics, he said, adding that the committee has invited both candidates in the appeals court judge race between Judge George Fearing and Gary Metro to speak, though the candidates didn't request or receive money.
"We've actually given money to every single person who has come to us and asked for support," Peck said.
Peck also questioned why Burns Road, which provides access to the planned Spencer Estates, is only 26 feet wide, below the county standard of 28 feet.
"If there is a problem, I see people holding up documents in a lawsuit and saying, 'You knew this road was inadequate, you discussed it at a public meeting,' " Peck told county planning and building director Jerrod MacPherson.
Peck ended up voting for the subdivision to go forward, resulting in a 3-0 decision. He is confident that staff will be able to work out any issues with the road and other infrastructure while the area builds up, he said after the meeting.
"We've got a great planning department, they vet these packages quite thoroughly, but that doesn't mean there aren't some areas that need some focus or scrutiny just to make sure we're on top of our game," he said.
The proposed development is in the city of Pasco's urban growth boundary. The city council approved an agreement Monday that will provide residents with city water. Residents using city water will have to give up the right to challenge a possible future annexation of the area.
-- Commissioners approved an agreement to stay in the Columbia Basin Ground Water Management Area by a 2-1 vote, with Commissioner Bob Koch opposing. They said they will not actively participate in a state Department of Ecology study designed to improve water supplies in Moses Lake and Othello, but sent a letter of support for the project to the department.
The $500,000 study is intended to look at ways to inject surface water into underground formations in the winter for storage until demand picks up in the summer. Peck and commission Chairman Rick Miller said they hope the study will benefit Franklin County in the future.
Koch has said he doesn't feel the groundwater management area is curing the problem of depleted aquifers.
-- Commissioners agreed to put money for new public records request tracking software in the 2014 budget. The software will cost $3,500, with a $495 monthly fee.
"I think the software is expensive and necessary, and I support it," Peck said.
-- Commissioners approved a bid for safety improvements on an eighth of a mile stretch of Wahluke Road with GeoStabilization International of Grand Junction, Colo., for $292,229. The bid includes new guardrails and slope stabilization.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityHerald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom