HAMILTON — The Hamilton Town Council approved a zoning change last week that paves the way for the nonprofit land conservancy Forterra to begin the design phase of a development project that would bring housing and businesses outside the Skagit River flood plain.

The change zones 42 acres of recently annexed land as business-commercial, according to the town ordinance passed Nov. 12. That land is tucked between Highway 20, the town church and a local tree farm.

The plan is to provide housing and economic development opportunities on that land, which is outside the Skagit River flood plain, as well as use energy efficient design and protect important natural resources.

According to town documents, the plan is to develop 27 acres and maintain the other 15 acres as open space. Some of the open space will protect a tributary to Carey’s Slough that flows through town to the river.

The development will provide a place where residents and businesses can relocate outside the frequently flooded portion of town tucked between the river and the slough.

The project, which remains largely conceptual after the first two years of work, has been subject of some pushback from residents fearful of outside control and not interested in leaving their homes in the historic part of town.

Forterra and Hamilton Mayor Joan Cromley have worked to dispel rumors and ease concerns, holding several community meetings to share project information and take public input.

“I would hope the town would see this property as a chance to shape the future,” Forterra President and CEO Michelle Connor said. “We hope to earn people’s trust and confidence.”

The nonprofit based out of Seattle works to preserve wild lands, farms and working forests throughout the Pacific Northwest, as well as help communities adapt to become greener and to withstand climate change.

In Hamilton, the goal is to develop an environmentally friendly residential area away from the Skagit River, where existing homes and businesses are at frequent risk of flooding. Climate change is also projected to exacerbate that flood risk.

The town’s 2007 comprehensive plan notes half of the town’s 310 acres at that time were in the flood plain, including 90% of the town’s residential land.

New homes built in the project area will be intended for current Hamilton residents who want to leave the flood plain.

“Our job is to create opportunity,” Connor said. “Someday there may be a flood and people may want options, and we want to be there for that day.”

Carla Vandiver, who is likely to become the town’s next mayor according to preliminary election results, has said part of the cause of anxiety for Hamilton residents is that they enjoy lots with yards and don’t want to live in condo-style housing.

While the design is yet to come, Connor said the goal is for the new properties to be financially within reach for locals.

She said the aim is for the sale prices to be under $200,000, as well as to connect interested buyers from the town with federal and state programs that could provide financial assistance.

“Our goal is to put these homes within striking distance of Hamilton families,” Connor said.

With the town’s recent zoning decision, Forterra now has a sense of what it is allowed to consider building on the property, and can start the design process, which will include more community meetings.

“That’s probably 3 to 5 years of work,” Connor said. “We’re not trying to just plop something down.”

The development is likely to use a mix of housing types.

The town ordinance suggests the development may include some single-family, townhome and mixed-use units, and 35% of the units should be designated as affordable housing. Affordable housing is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a dwelling a household can obtain for 30% or less of its income.

Connor said Forterra is eager to hear from residents what they would like to see so the nonprofit can strive to produce “a really beautiful complement to the historic town” that still “feels like Hamilton.”

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

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