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San Juan County Council discussed possible homeless sales tax; Housing ideas for Malcolm property

LWVSJ Observer Corps summary of San Juan County Council March 6-7, 2023 meetings.

County Director of Facilities Greg Sawyer briefed the Council on County buildings issues. The county has properties and buildings dispersed across six islands. There is a general space shortage for some functions, specific shortfalls in meeting regulatory requirements, and problems with specific buildings.

Adult detention is inadequate and juvenile detention is non-existent. On Lopez, new space will be needed soon for the Sheriff and Juvenile Court Services. The Courthouse is seismically unsafe and has serious water damage. Consolidating many County operations in a new building would be more cost effective and better address issues than renovation/remediation of substandard buildings. The sale of existing buildings could cover some of the cost.

The Prosecuting Attorney will review the 22 Volunteer Boards and Commissions, two-three at a time with Council in coming months looking at their authority, mission and membership requirements and proposing any needed updates to code, training and the county website. Observer was not present for a discussion on the State legislative session communication protocol.


The Council received correspondence on the WSF run to Sidney which Jane Fuller will respond to, and a communication from WSF on the interisland run. Councilor Wolf will invite WSF, state officials and legislators to a public meeting with Council on the issue; date TBD.

Citizens from three islands, the Orcas Coalition on the Homeless, and three FRCs spoke in support of a 1/10th/1% sales tax to support programs addressing homelessness.

The Council Set a public Hearing for April 4th on disposing of surplus property.

A number of people spoke in support of the RFQ responses from Favor/34 or from the Home Trust for the Argyle Lots. County staff reviewed the two proposals, the process so far and the process going forward.

County staff and the Housing Advisory Committee recommended that the Council proceed with the Home Trust proposal as it more closely met RFQ elements and was a known and trusted long-term partner. The recommendation is posted at the end of this article.

Council members were not ready to move on that recommendation and wanted to further explore the possible private partnership and to better understand various elements, including the financial roadmap for both proposals.

Council members will join an open meeting with newly elected officials on Lopez on Saturday March 11.

*The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization encourages informed participation in government. The Observer Corps attends and takes notes at government meetings to expand public understanding of public policy and decisions. The notes do not necessarily reflect the views of the League or its members.

Housing Advisory Committee Recommendation for the Argyle Lot RFQ Responses

On December 5, 2002, San Juan County acting through the County Land Bank purchased land on San Juan Island at the junction of Argyle Avenue and Malcom Street known as the “Argyle Lots.” The property is made up of four parcels within the Town of Friday Harbor. The original stated goal of the project for the Land Bank was to “preserve the significant historic values of the Lower Argyle neighborhood.” The plan was to encumber the undeveloped lots with conversation easements to restrict future uses and development that might compromise the historic and cultural integrity of the Lower Argyle neighborhood.

In 2018 the County Council and the Land Bank made the decision to transfer the ownership of the property from the Land Bank to the County itself with the goal of eventually developing affordable housing on the property that would be in keeping with the historic values of the neighborhood. The goal of developing the property for affordable housing was not congruent with the mission of the Land Bank.

The County general fund purchased the property at fair market value from the Land Bank over a three-year period totaling $725,000. As part of this process, the County recorded a Historic Preservation Easement with the Town of Friday harbor to assure that any construction or activity on the property would be consistent with the historic preservation regulations of the Town of Friday Harbor Historic Overlay District.

County staff first met with the Town of Friday Harbor to discuss the development of the property in Summer 2018. After many starts, stops, and discussions with the Town and internally with County staff, it was determined that the best path forward for the parcel was to identify a developer to partner with the County on the development of the lot. The County has a long standing policy which precludes the County itself from owning, developing or managing housing (other than for its own employees).

Given the investment from the County in the parcel, the County would retain ownership of the land and negotiate a long-term lease or similarly binding instrument with the development partner it selected.

In October 2023, the County officially released a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to identify a development partner for the Argyle Lots.

At the close of the RFQ response period, the County had received responses from three developers: Favor 34, G Projects, and the San Juan Community Home Trust (Home Trust). That RFQ laid out the process by which a developer (if any) would be selected.

1. County Staff will evaluate responses and prepare initial recommendations based on the merits of the proposed projects, whether the project meets the priorities, goals and strategies of the County's Comprehensive Plan, and whether the response meets the criteria of this RFQ.

2. Housing Advisory Committee (HAC) will review staff reports and present their recommendations to the County Council.

3. County Council will accept or reject the HAC recommendations. The County Council has final decisions-making authority and reserves the right to reject any and all proposals, and/or withdraw or subsequently modify or review the terms contained with this RFQ.

Staff including Housing Program Coordinator Ryan Page, Health & Community Services Director Mark Tompkins, and County Manager Mike Thomas met multiple times following the close of the RFQ response window to discuss their impressions of the responses received.

At the January 11, 2023 HAC meeting the HAC determined that the response from G Projects did not meet the minimum threshold of information needed to be considered. Staff concurred and that response was not included in future deliberations.

After thorough review of the application materials and conducting brief interviews with the two remaining candidates, staff recommended to the HAC that the San Juan Community Home Trust should be the developer to move forward with in collaboration on the Argyle lot project.

The applications from Favor 34 and the Home Trust represented two very different approaches to the project. Favor 34 indicated their group could finance the entire cost of constructing the project without any need of local, state or federal subsidies while the Home Trust proposed a more standard approach for affordable housing development that requires State and Federal funding.

The proposed design concepts of the two developers were also in contrast. Favor 34’s proposal was a much denser urban style development, while the Home Trust were proposing a more modest and singlefamily residence type development.

While both responses merited serious considerations, ultimately staff felt the most comfortable moving forward with the Home Trust’s vision. The capability of the Home Trust development team in combination with their vision of community engagement for the final design of the project and the longevity of their stewardship commitment was impressive. Staff also believed that the Home Trust response most aligned with the goal of preserving the “significant historic values of the lower Argyle neighborhood.”

On Thursday February 23 2023, the HAC held a special meeting to consider the staff recommendation. After their discussion and deliberations, the HAC voted unanimously to concur with the staff recommendation that the San Juan Community Home Trust should be selected as the preferred developer for this project.

Recommendation: The Housing Advisory Committee recommends that the San Juan Community Home Trust should be selected as the preferred development partner for the Argyle Lots Project

Next Steps: The County Council must take these recommendations into consideration along with the responses to the RFQ and decide on which proposal, if any, to move forward with as the preferred development partner.

Once the Council makes a decision, staff will begin working with the chosen developer to negotiate a  Developer Agreement for the project.

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