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Residents band together to fight road widening

More than a dozen Harper residents who claim Kitsap County officials have ignored their pleas to stop, delay or even alter their plans to widen a scenic but unsafe stretch of Southworth Drive have successfully petitioned South Kitsap Commissioner Jan Angel to hold a private meeting next month with the Public Works Department to air their concerns.

The residents — who call themselves the “Harper 17” because they own most of the 17 plots the county will need to carve as much as 13 feet out of to add bicycle and pedestrian lanes to a half-mile strip near the Harper Dock — said they have pleaded with officials to include them in the project’s planning and keep them informed of the process, even asking a regional transportation board to deny federal funding the county needs to complete the project.

But while the group’s objections led the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) last year to delay granting the money until county officials held a public meeting to address community concerns, the members say the project is moving steadily forward with neither their ideas considered nor their questions answered.

“We don’t think (the project) was handled right,” said resident Dawn Bove. “The residents have had absolutely no input into the design or plan and have not been notified of changes.”

County officials describe the planned work between the Harper Dock and Olympiad Drive as “basic and necessary road safety improvements (that) have been needed for quite some time, (and will upgrade) the only remaining section of substandard road from Port Orchard to Southworth.”

But while the residents agree certain safety problems on the narrow, shoulder-less road need to be addressed, they believe the county’s approach will not solve them — and will, in fact, make them worse.

The current plan, presented by the county in the required public meeting Dec. 1, calles for widening the road by at least 10 feet to create 11-foot traffic lanes and four-foot shoulders on each side that can be used by both bicyclists and walkers.

Carey Ensign, who owns two of the plots in question, said while the residents’ concerns can vary from house to house, there are three things they can agree they all want for the road — a lower speed limit, a safe walking path, and for it not to be widened.

None of these requests, she said, will be met by the county’s plan.

Since the county does not plan to lower the speed limit, paint crosswalks or add speed bumps, residents say the road will be even more dangerous after the improvements because motorists will not be forced to slow down to navigate the winding, skinny strip.

“People will go faster, and they will start parking along the road and on our property,” Bove said. “It will be even more lethal for the kids that want to come down here.”

Bove also disputed the county’s claim that the new lanes will provide a safe place to walk, arguing that pedestrians will not only still be too close to traffic, but that they will have to compete with bicycles and even parked cars for the limited space.

“We would like them to consider a boardwalk on the beach,” she said. “And instead of widening the road, to put in drainage ditches and cover them with gravel, which would give us a place to walk.”

The opposition movement began last September when the residents learned the county was seeking $200,000 to purchase right-of-way along the road. They organized monthly meetings, and several of the residents traveled to Seattle to bring their concerns to the PSRC and request the county not be granted the money.

But while they succeeded in delaying the funding, the residents said only one meeting was held, rather than the series they were promised. Meanwhile, what they were told at that meeting did not calm their fears and instead convinced them the county was proceeding full-steam on the project without considering their input.

As soon as the county was granted the funding, residents said its staff began placing stakes along the road to outline the project and letters were sent to the homeowners requesting permission for appraisers to inspect their property.

Knowing they could no longer block the funding, Bove said the group’s members are fighting the project they only way they know how — by digging in their heels and refusing to sell.

“We will fight this as long as we can,” she said, explaining that she and most of the rest of the group did not want to sell the right-of-way, and refused to grant permission for appraisers to enter their property.

In the meantime, Ensign said she approached Angel and asked whether she could arrange for Public Works staff members to sit down with them and address their concerns.

Angel agreed to Ensign’s request, and said last week she had received a list of questions from the group and had forwarded them to her staff to review before the meeting, now scheduled for next month.

Rob McGinley, who handles right-of-way acquisitions for the Public Works Department, said he had received the list of questions and was reviewing them for the meeting. Many did not involve his department, McGinley said, however he did plan to address the residents’ concerns that they were not receiving a fair market value for their property.

Bove said she didn’t agree with the county’s formula for determining her property’s value, which she said did not give a reasonable price for the premium waterfront property the county needed to acquire.

“They basically gave each square foot the same value, which means the swamp in the back of my property is worth the same as the front,” she said. “And that’s not fair.”

McGinley said if the residents believe they are not being given a fair price, state law grants the homeowners $750 each to perform their own appraisal, which he said can be done for that amount if only the waterfront property is assessed.

McGinley said he hoped the meeting next month relieved some of the residents’ fears and smoothed the acquisition process, because he believed requiring the county to claim imminent domain and condemn their properties would deprive the residents of time and money.

Admitting he was told he was “a brave man for going down there,” McGinley said he went door-to-door to meet with several of the residents in person.

“Unfortunately, the county is often viewed as a big machine that is untouchable, but when I go in to and a face to county government, we work quite well together,” he said. “We try to treat them fairly and equitably, and have everything above-board.”

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