Community reacts to plan to expand Hamilton on drier ground

An evacuation route sign marks the way out of town in Hamilton.

HAMILTON — Town officials and the nonprofit Forterra are bringing the community of Hamilton into discussions about building a new portion of the town outside the Skagit River floodplain.

A crowd of about 35 — mostly town residents — packed a meeting room Wednesday at Town Hall to ask questions and share opinions.

The town and Forterra, which invests in environmentally conscious land-use projects in Washington, have partnered to determine how the town’s urban growth area could be transformed into an extension of the town where residents who are tired of being affected by floods could relocate.

The urban growth area is north of Highway 20 and east of Hamilton Cemetery Road.

“My kind of vision for that area is an extension of the town, not moving the town,” Hamilton Town Councilman Tim Morrison said.

Community members asked how the development might affect wildlife in the area and why the existing town couldn’t be modified with boardwalks and gondolas to allow residents to better live with floodwaters.

Hamilton — located along the Skagit River and partially encircled by Carey’s Slough — is frequently flooded and often slow to drain following floods.

Hamilton Mayor Joan Cromley said 80 percent of the existing 1.5-square-mile town is in the Skagit River floodplain.

Other officials, including state Sen. Keith Wagoner and Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, said they support the project. Janicki said Skagit County Planning and Development staff have been in contact with Cromley regarding the project and Wagoner said he can try to help secure state funding to help Forterra.

Throughout the meeting Wednesday, Cromley and Forterra staff reiterated that planning is in the beginning stages, and there will be opportunities throughout the process for residents to provide input.

“Our work is guided by the voices that live there,” Lindsay Fromme of Forterra said.

So far, Forterra and Hamilton have agreed to work together to evaluate purchasing and developing the town’s 45-acre urban growth area, which a single landowner is looking to sell.

Forterra is taking a close look at the property and determining how it could be developed.

Consulting firm HDR Inc. has donated $30,000 worth of early engineering and design work to help, said Forterra Vice President of Real Estate Transactions Tobias Levey.

Determining what the town wants to see on the property, how it would be zoned and divided into lots, what it might cost to build and where funding could come from are details that would need to be worked out.

Before that, Forterra needs to obtain ownership of the property, which would take place in January if the nonprofit moves forward, Levey said.

The town would also need to annex the urban growth area, a step that would require approval from the Skagit County Board of Commissioners.

Levey said Forterra has about 30 years of experience in helping purchase property for preservation, conservation or development.

The nonprofit does not finance projects, he said. Instead, it does single-payment purchases using money from its endowment, from grants or from a combination of the two.

If Forterra helps bring housing to the area north of Highway 20, those homes would be available to Hamilton residents first. Levey said how that would be guaranteed has yet to be worked out, but the point of the project is to provide housing to Hamilton residents who want to move out of the floodplain.

“What we’re talking about is providing an affordable alternative to live in the area,” he said.

The idea for relocating residents has been floated for decades, but discussions stalled about 2007.

“It’s nice to be at least taking baby steps again,” Cromley said.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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