It appeared to be a straight forward rezoning request. The property to the west of 660 Spring Street is zoned commercial. The property to the east was rezoned from professional services to commercial in 2015. The property across the street was rezoned commercial in 2002. So why did the Friday Harbor Town Council refuse a request by Friday Harbor Medical Investors, LLC to rezone 660 Spring Street from professional to commercial?
Areas in red hash marks are zoned commercial, orange is professional services, green is multi-family, yellow is residential, blue is industrial and brown is light manufacturing.
Life Care Convalescent Center shut down last year after running in the red for years. The owners cited low payment amounts from Medicaid (Washington pays less than Idaho), lack of affordable housing for employees made it difficult to retain the amount of staff necessary to comply with regulations.
According to Vice President of Western Operations Todd Fletcher a dozen nursing home facilities - not belonging to LCC - in the state have shut down in the past year. Before LCC was shut down, he met with three potential buyers hoping to sell the business. "Once they saw our financials, they were no longer interested in purchasing."
In a letter to the council he wrote: "A smaller, more modern facility could be built elsewhere, but the current facility is too large and too old to be viable as a nursing center."
At the May 17, 2018 Town Council meeting where the vote was taken, Council member Tim Daniels said, "What I find most helpful, if you don't mind me pointing out on the map, what currently exists. This is the subject property, commercial on both sides. This one done recently. The way Spring Street has been rezoned seems to have recognized this is commercial. The only reason that you can see on a map as to why you would keep this is public desire for something that won't be coming back. To permit the rezone does not preclude its use as a Life Care Facility, skilled nursing facility going forward...Is it appropriate for us to saddle, restrict that one piece amidst these others for a desired possible future? Don't see where we as a council are denying this application other than as a public sentiment."
Realtor Bill Giesy said if the property is not rezoned "it will likely be vacant for years." When asked how the request complied with the question: Does the proposed rezone bear a substantial relationship to public health, safety, morals or general welfare. He said if it is rezoned, it is more likely to be bought and it will provide jobs, vitality, and taxes for the benefit of the Town of Friday Harbor and its citizens.
When approving the request in 2015 to rezone the former Inter Island Medical Center, the council did not ask the applicant to answer that question.
The town staff's report recommended the rezoning. "The purpose of the professional service zone is to provide for administrative and office facilities for the accommodation of professional services and other such uses as may be compatible. The designation is intended to provide a transition zone between commercial use and residential use."
"Commercial zoning: The purpose of the commercial zone is to provide retail and professional services and such other uses as may be compatible."
Both of the zonings would allow a convalescent center. The biggest difference in that regard would be that under commercial zoning, structures can cover up to 70 percent of a lot. Under professional services, the maximum lot coverage by structures is limited to 40 percent.
Both uses can have ancillary residential uses except on the ground floor street front areas. Under professional zoning, the residential area must be less than 50 percent of the square footage of the business area. Commercial zoning is more generous, the residential use area must be less than 50 percent of the total habitable square footage.
The council expressed concerns about the closure of LCC and talked about what an important resource such a facility is for the island. But if both zonings can accommodate such a facility, and commercial zoning would even allow substantial areas for residential housing, why did four of the council members - Steve Hushebeck, Noel Monin, Anna Marie deFrietas, and Barbara Starr vote against the rezoning request?
The answer may lie in the more than a dozen letters received by the Town Council about the rezoning request. All 18 letter writers urged the council to deny it.
Most believed that a hotel would be built if the rezoning happened. They urged the council to find a way to make the facility a nursing home.
"...urge you to make every possible effort to find a new owner/tenant for the old Life Care Center"
"...need to replace the former convalescent center with an enterprise with a similar focus is acute."
"Do we find a way to reopen LifeCare Center or do we give up, rezone and make the facility a hotel."
"I appeal to Commission members to see this as an essential community service, and not a business opportunity."
"The island desperately need such a facility...the desires of the current property owners to make a quick sale does not match, at all, the true needs of our island."
"If another healthcare facility isn't a realistic option for the old convalescent hospital, shouldn't lower income housing for our ever-growing senior population at least be explored on that site."
"I ask you to please consider keeping the zoning as personal services so that we can hopefully once again get a convalescent/rehab center that is so needed on these islands."
"The prospect of replacing an important facility for rehabilitating islanders and care for those receiving needed nursing care outside of a hospital setting, with a hotel, seems like civic irresponsibility."
"This property offers a perfect opportunity for reincarnation as another elder care facility to fill that gaping hole that the previous one left."
Other writers were concerned about competition if a hotel were built.
"I think it is only fair to look at the existing lodging operators and imagine what the direct affects will be on us."
"I can tell you that from my educated point of view that at this stage we do not need another hotel.... since the explosion of more short-term home-sharing and vacation rental platforms, it's a totally different ball game...a new hotel, let alone two, with another proposed on First Street, would absolutely wreck existing businesses." This letter writer claimed she knew someone who wanted to buy the property and run it as a nursing home.
The county's Visitor Bureau wrote: "However, our Board of Directors, which represents a cross-section of members, would like to make the following comments, and in general, asks the Town to consider the big picture - how more hotel rooms will affect the Town and its, and our, valued current businesses."
After the April 5 meeting, Attorney Stephanie O'Day wrote a letter to the Town Administrator saying that both deFrietas and Mayor Farhad Ghatan should have recused themselves from the discussion expecially when it focused on a potential hotel. Both own lodging facilities in the Town of Friday Harbor. She quoted the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine: The development of the appearance of fairness doctrine in this state is closely tied to our recognition that restrictions on the free and unhampered use of property imposed by planning and zoning compel the highest public confidence in governmental processes bring about such action.
At the public hearing on April 5, 2018, council member Noel Monin noted the request was for rezoning not for a hotel. He said he had concerns only if a technical service was sited there. "But other than that I honestly don’t have a lot of argument against this rezone application despite the concerns that may happen after the fact. Keeping this holistic and straightly a rezone application I don’t see a lot of argument against it."
Town Administrator Duncan Wilson told the council, "If council feels that there are certain elements of the commercial zone that would be inappropriate for this location you can require that a contract rezone be done with a developer agreement that the property not be allowed for certain types of conditions. If there was any one of the commercial uses that you felt was particularly egregious that you didn’t want to see there."
Council member Barbara Starr said, "It is more likely to be purchased for a strictly commercial venture. I think it is important we provide some guidance, that we signal our intent of protecting this possibility for our community because it is part of an essential infrastructure that we need here if we are going to sustain ourselves. Population of seniors in our community has grown greatly and we are going to lose a great number of residents if we lose this option. ...I would reconsider if four years went by and no one purchased the property for this."
Tim Daniels said, "We cannot make a determination on the basis of non-existent worlds. The real question comes back to 'is this an appropriate zoning request for this property'?.... While I do empathize with our community about the lack of long-term care, I’m not sure we should be making a decision based on our desire to see that available relative to a particular property. … Heard frequent reference to another hotel being some kind of albatross around the neck of Friday Harbor...It is necessary for people to understand failed endevours do happen...People competing for limited amount of resources."
He continued, "Add another hotel you then begin to reduce the pressures on vacation rentals. By pressures I mean return on investment (ROI). Because there are now more options. Now my value goes lower. Eventually as my ROI goes lower. I elect to use vacation rental for long-term rental. When I use my vacation rental for long term rental. Now the housing market opens up and expands for more use."
"It’s really trusting a free market system to do what it does well. Which is allowing individuals to make individual choices that benefit a whole of society rather than a top-down try to direct how people will spend their money or pursue their life’s dream. When you increase opportunities for employment you also increase salaries which is a way of making housing more affordable," Daniels said.
Council member Anna deFrietas said, "We are incentivizing a property. Incentive to do something that is in the community interest."
Council member Steve Hushebeck was absent from the April 5 meeting. At the May 17, 2018 meeting he said, "I will have difficulty in supporting this application at this time."
Monin said he agreed with a lot of what Daniels said but thought the property hadn't been on the market that long. "Let things settle out. Agree with Barbara, it would be onerous to wait four years....Agree with applicant that empty properties are a blight. So think that is enough said for right now. ....Maybe just wait a little longer to see what happens. I'm still wavering."
Starr said, "I remain somewhat conflicted. Listened carefully to testimony from Ms. O'Day and Mr. Fletcher, read all letters from community - universally against. Not comfortable with approving the request at this time."
deFritas said, "How many tourists do we want? How much infrastructure...Decision we make now impacts generations down the road. Thinking about them in terms of the fabric of the community."
The vote was four against the rezoning with Daniels the only vote for it.