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Water debate wears on for parks district

The decade-old problem is one of South Kitsap’s most ironic: South Kitsap Community Park, which sits atop a rich aquifer and has two active wells within its boundaries, can’t get enough water to keep its grass green during the summer.

The arrangement and subsequent controversy dates back to 1990, when Annapolis Water District signed a lease agreement with the South Kitsap Parks and Recreation District for use of three proposed well sites.

The agreement gave the water district the right to drill three wells on park property, plus unlimited access to the wellheads via a handful of dirt access roads. In return, the district agreed to waive $16,000 in frontage fees it would have collected to connect water to the park’s sole cluster of toilets.

The agreement seemed amicable — Annapolis needed extra water supply and the park needed bathrooms. However, five years later the two districts got into a legal battle over the location of the wells, which had gone on-line the year before.

That dispute, which resulted in the water district paying $2,500 to the parks district in an out-of court settlement, seemed to be only the start of problems between the two.

Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, was just finishing up a four-year term on the parks Board of Commissioners when the agreement was signed. He says Annapolis promised the district access to irrigation water available on-site.

“There was water there, I was told, that was not good for drinking, but would be good for watering parts of the park,” he said.

Oke’s memory of this promise became a full-fledged controversy in 2003, when the parks board, suffering from financial difficulties and watching its grass turn to dust during the unusually hot summer, asked the water district for some free water.

Since the water district was pumping out of parks land, the board reasoned, surely the park had rights to some of it.

Since the original $16,000 in-kind payment, the water district has paid the parks district only $1 — the lease amount for the first five years as stipulated by the contract.

The contract allows for re-negotiation every five years, but rapid parks board turnover pushed the contract out of the board’s collective consciousness. No redressing of lease terms has been done, even informally, since 1990.

Even so, water district Commissioner Jim Hart — the longest-serving member of the board — said he was a little nonplussed by the parks district’s request.

“(Commissioner) Dave Kimble came in and said they should be getting free water and, of cours,e we told him that was against the RCWs,” Hart said. “There has to be a tangible reason. We can’t just give you free water.”

State law, he explained, prohibits “gifting” of money or resources by taxing districts of any size. It would be illegal for the water district to simply let the parks district tap its wells.

Technically, the two agencies could arrange a trade — water for lease rights, for example. However, Hart said the water district would rather deal in money, not trade.

“We said it makes sense to re-negotiate the contract, but we’re not going to give you free water,” he said.

Apart from the obvious difficulty in establishing fair value in such a trade, Hart explained, if the parks district had free access to the system, it would leave the parks officials no incentive to conserve.

Conservation, which became a big issue last summer, is about to become a state requirement — perhaps as early as next year. Over-enthusiastic watering in the park could potentially get the water district in a lot of trouble after conservation mandates went into effect.

However, the money issue is becoming equally as contentious. The parks board members indicated they had no problem taking cash payment and simply using that to pay the park’s water bills. Nevertheless, several board members said they weren’t thrilled with the lease amount offered by the water commissioners.

According to both parks and water representatives, the water board offered parks 5 percent of the wellheads’ assessed value in annual rent. The wells, plus their required buffer zones, cover less than 1. 5 acres and the park is assessed by the county at $11,000 per acre. The resulting amount — an estimated $750 — would barely cover a month or two of the park’s water bills during the summer.

“I would have rather started out with a larger number for negotiations,” Kimble said. “I think a better way is to have a serious discussion about what’s the fair value of the land.”

Since the initial offer in October, the parks commissioners have been researching a basis for a counter offer. On Wednesday, they discussed what they’d uncovered so far, but came to the conclusion that what they really needed was more time to work on it.

“We want to do this as responsibly as possible,” said parks board Chair Larry Walker. “We don’t have a hard-and-fast timeline (for negotiations) — we don’t have the information to make one.”

The parks board hopes to discuss their findings again in a month — the ongoing effort to build a public-private partnership with area businesses and re-negotiate tenant contracts has made it hard for the board to concentrate solely on this issue. Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who served as chair last year, said similar issues may have been why it’s taken until 2004 for the board to readdress this issue.

“I think the fact we don’t have a staff person is a severe disadvantage,” she said.

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