Black Diamond votes to assume water rights | Part 3

Editor’s note: This is part three in a series about a water service dispute between the city of Black Diamond and the Covington Water District. Both claim service rights to 98 acres inside the Black Diamond city limits. This week’s article outlines what action Black Diamond has taken, and how the Covington Water District may respond. The Sept. 2 article examined statements made in Black Diamond’s 2009 Water Comprehensive Plan, responses from the Covington Water District and how these may affect claims to the land.

The water rights dispute between the city of Black Diamond and the Covington Water District reached a milestone Sept. 3 when the city decided to officially begin the assumption, or take-over process, for the right to serve water to 98 acres within The Villages development.

Ordinance 15-1058 passed three votes to one, with one council member recused.

This may spell the beginning of the end of this water rights fight, as Black Diamond has attempted to gain control of those 98 acres since the city’s 2009 Water Comprehensive Plan was approved by the county.

The city first argued that because Black Diamond annexed The Villages development in 2005, which included the 98 acres, this meant exclusive water service rights were automatically granted to the city.

The Covington Water District disagreed, and appealed to the King County Utility Technical Review Committee last April.

The King County Utility Technical Review Committee or UTRC decided on May 1 the 98 acre area was within the district’s service area, both the district and the city could serve water to future residents of that area in a reasonable and timely manner, and if the city wanted the water service rights, it would have to go through the assumption process under Revised Code of Washington Chapter 13.35A.

The city appealed the UTRC decision because it claimed the assumption process was not necessary, however Ordinance 15-1058 stated, “completing assumption may reduce litigation and lead to a more efficient resolution of the matter.” The appeal is scheduled to be heard by the county hearing examiner Nov. 12.

At the same time, the Covington Water District has said it plans to appeal to the King County Boundary Review Board to try and keep the city from assuming the 98 acres.

The district argued Black Diamond made statements that misrepresented the city’s relationship with the Covington Water District back when the plan was being reviewed, and that “an assumption would be unfair and unjust in light of the misrepresentations made by the City of Black Diamond in the process of getting its Water System Plan approved,” reads a letter from the district to the Black Diamond City Council, delivered Aug. 6.

No final decision about whether or not the district will follow this course of action has been made.

Council Votes

The City Council voted on Ordinance 15-1058 after a lengthy presentation and discussion (click the link to download council audio).

Kevin Fuhrer, representing the Covington Water District spoke first during public comment, addressing the concerns the district had about the ordinance. Fuhrer argued against claims made in the ordinance that Black Diamond would be more efficient in serving water to the 98 acres and against claims the district will charge more money to future residents of the 98 acres for water connection fees and ongoing water cost. He also argued the city misled the county by claiming Black Diamond and the Covington Water District entered an agreement to transfer the water service rights of the 98 acres from the district to the city. According to Fuhrer there is no documentation to back up those claims and the district never entered such an agreement with the city.

Public Works Director Seth Boettcher then presented the ordinance to the council and addressed the Covington Water District’s claim the city misled the county in its 2009 Water Comprehensive Plan.

“A lot of (Covington Water District’s) argument is based on this outlandish fairytale that somehow we have misled the county,” Boettcher said. “They base their whole argument around this fiction.”

After Boettcher’s nearly 30 minute presentation, Councilwoman Janie Edelman recused herself from the council discussion and vote. At the Aug. 20 council meeting Cindy Wheeler said during public comment Edelman may have a conflict of interest concerning the water service issue.

“I’m not happy with this, and I have been advised that I do not have a conflict of interest with this issue,” Edelman said. “But in the interest of the abundance of fairness, I will recuse myself from the discussion and depart.”

Councilwoman Erika Morgan spoke next, solidly placing herself in the ‘no’ party.

“After reading our staff comments and comparing it to the Covington Water District’s testimony, I feel the district has a stronger case,” she said. “I’m particularly concerned with what appears to be a cherry-picking of information to justify an assumption.”

Morgan said she felt assuming the 98 acres will further sour relationships between the city and the district, and the city should stay on good terms with the Covington Water District because the district serves water to around 600 Black Diamond residents. On that note, she said she feels there will most likely be a rise in rates for Covington Water District customers in Black Diamond if the city assumes the 98 acres, a claim substantiated by the letter delivered to the council on Aug. 6.

The letter stated, “… the loss of this anticipated revenue means that the district’s other customers will have to absorb the RWSS (regional water supply system) water supply costs, which includes residents located around Lake Sawyer…”

She also said she feels Black Diamond has not complied to the letter and spirit of the Growth Management Act, which requires close coordination between water providers.

Councilman Craig Goodwin spoke next and said assuming the 98 acres is the quickest way to bring the dispute to an end and, ”Without pursuing our city’s legal right to assumption, there is little possibility of settlement and resolution of this matter.”

Councilman Ron Taylor said he planned to vote yes because the revenue the city will gain from this assumption will help support the city and, in turn, the city’s residents.

Councilwoman Tamie Deady echoed Taylor’s thoughts, saying future residents and businesses will be supported better by Black Diamond assuming the 98 acres.