Diocese gets Council approval, but not without conditions

The Sunnyside City Council gave the Diocese of Yakima Housing Services its blessing to construct a new housing complex, but it wasn't exactly what the agency was looking for.

Council held a public hearing this past Monday night in regards to approving an annexation of property in the area of Sheller Road and 16th Street owned by Rene and Paula Lemos and Brandon Burns and Harry and Laura Burns. The Diocese of Yakima Housing Service wants to build 51 units of rental housing on the property.

By the end of the public hearing, the Diocese of Yakima Housing Services will be able to build its housing complex, but not quite to the plans the agency wanted.

Prior to the discussion, Mayor Pro-tem Mike Farmer and Councilman Jim Restucci excused themselves from the meeting, citing a possible conflict of interest. Neither councilman gave a reason for excusing themselves.

Councilman Don Vlieger brought forth a possible conflict he saw with Councilwoman Bengie Aguilar and her relationship with the Diocese.

Aguilar said she used to be involved with an education program at St. Joseph Catholic School, but hasn't had much to do with the Diocese since she began her position with the Migrant Student Data and Recruitment office. The program is operated for the state by the Sunnyside School District. Aguilar assured everyone there was no conflict of interest.

A couple of councilmen disclosed what they had been doing to research the matter, including Vlieger, who had a 30-minute conversation with Diocese officials about the project and Councilman Bruce Ricks who spoke with the mayor of Mattawa about a similar project in that community.

Mark Kunkler, who oversees the city's planning department, provided Council with a brief report on the project, which first came before the governing body in May 2004.

The annexation matter went before the Sunnyside Planning Commission, which approved the annexation request with an R-2 zoning requirement, medium density residential zone designation. Diocese officials came before Council Monday night asking for an R-3 designation, high-density residential zone. The R-3 designation would give the Diocese officials a bit more flexibility with the design of the complex they want to build in Sunnyside.

Kunkler did support the recommendation of annexation with an R-2 designation. Kunkler said the city would need to address some of the wording in a development agreement with the Diocese, which was only submitted to the city the afternoon of Monday's meeting.

Diocese of Yakima Housing Services representative Mario Villanueva came before Council wanting to clarify some of the misconceptions about the project and to make sure members understood the purpose of the meeting.

"The matter before us is a zoning and annexation matter," said Villanueva.

Villanueva said the intent of the Diocese is to be in the community, managing its proposed complex for at least a 40-year term.

"It is a long-term commitment," said Villanueva.

Villanueva said the intent of the Diocese project is to serve working families.

"We are trying to meet that demand," said Villanueva.

Villanueva cited how the Sunnyside Housing Authority has 300 names on a waiting list and with the new complex the Diocese is proposing to build, it could meet that need.

Villanueva said the Diocese was looking to secure an R-3 designation, which will allow for a better design of the complex, which would include a soccer playing field area.

One of the Diocese's goals in the project is to work with local businesses.

"It will provide local jobs for about a year," said Villanueva.

Villanueva said the Diocese would also encourage its contractors to purchase locally.

Responding to a question from Council, Villanueva said the complex would contribute between $6-$11,000 in property taxes based on the restricted rent basis formula used to evaluate the property.

"We believe that is a fair number (for property tax amounts) to get out there," said Villanueva.

Villanueva, though, pointed out the Diocese project does enjoy many tax breaks because of the way it is funded. But it is not the intent of the Diocese to try and short change the city from any revenue it is eligible to receive.

"We do want to make some type of investment into the city," said Villanueva.

Audience member Lori Harris was concerned about locating the project in the area. She said with the Sunnyside School District planning to build a new school in the area it would create traffic problems. Harris said she is also concerned about there being no sidewalks past the EPIC building and children having to walk in the area.

Harris said the Diocese project is not compatible with the area, citing the fact there is a wrecking yard in the area. Harris also had concerns about the low income housing that has been sprouting up in the area and how the lack of taxes being paid by the Diocese would effect school levies.

Chris Albrecht vehemently stated his objections to the project. Albrecht said putting another housing project of this type in the area would effect all that he has been working on for the past 60 years.

"It is going to negatively effect my life's work," said Albrecht, citing how his property value would go down.

Albrecht said he didn't want to have to pay more in taxes to support low income families.

"You are not doing this for us," Albrecht said to Villanueva. "You are doing this to us. I suggest you take your project down the road."

Several other communities members voiced concerns with having what they referred to as low income housing in the area, citing law enforcement problems, traffic congestion, not being notified by the city of the public hearing on the Diocese project and too much low income housing in one particular area.

"We want to try and be good neighbors," said Villanueva.

Councilman Bruce Ricks praised the Diocese for the designs of its various projects, including one in Grandview.

"I am afraid from there it goes downhill gentlemen," said Ricks.

Ricks said the impacts of the project far outweigh any positives.

"The impacts of saturation (of low income housing) are substantial to that area," said Ricks.

Ricks said he wants to know more about the impacts the Diocese project would have on such things as traffic and the city's water system.

"I think the impacts are substantial," said Ricks. "I think there are a lot of things that haven't been considered."

Vlieger was concerned about how the Diocese projects would impact such city services as fire and police protection, but would be hardly contributing a dime back to the expenses the city incurs by paying a lack of property taxes.

"It is going to be a drain on services," said Vlieger.

Vlieger also had more concerns about low income housing coming into the area of North 16th Street and Sheller Road. Vlieger said he feels Council has dumped the residents in that area with low income housing.

Councilman Paul Garcia, though, was quick to point out the Council needs to stick to strict standards when addressing annexation issues and not just taking into effect how each member feels about an issue. Garcia said one of the reasons low income housing is prevalent in this area is that no other landowners in the community are making property available for purchase.

The Council approved by a 3-2 margin the measure annexing the Lemos-Burns property into the City of Sunnyside. Councilmen Vlieger and Ricks were against approving the annexation. In a separate vote, Council approved an R-2 zoning designation. Aguilar and Garcia voted against the R-2 designation.

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