Bypass is shelved: Planning committee set to look at State Route
By Kevan Moore, Belfair Herald
Removal from that road plan, which is a list of road projects the county reasonably expects to finish in six years, has several implications for the county, its Belfair Subarea Planning Committee and the Overton family which owns the land that most of the bypass would traverse.
The planning committee was formed 17 months ago by the county commissioners to come up with a "master plan" for the town of Belfair and now has the tricky task of planning for the area without a bypass in the near future.
Mason County planner Bob Fink says the project, which was put on hold last year so that the county could negotiate a 1996 right-of-way agreement with the Overtons, is completely frozen.
"The board of commissioners have determined that the county is not going to build the bypass in the immediate future," Fink said. "That doesn't mean they won't build it. We were planning on building it in the next year or so, but that won't happen. I don't think it's been removed from the table, but the time table has changed."
Fink says that the Belfair planning committee should still consider the possibility of a future bypass.
"THEY CAN LOOK at it this year, they just can't plan on it being built next year," Fink said. "I think that part of their scope of work is to evaluate alternatives."
What those alternatives would or could be are anyone's guess. Right now, the hot topic seems to be the possibility of four lanes through downtown Belfair.
Dr. Brian Petersen, a local chiropractor who works in Pope Plaza and serves as the chairman of the planning committee, says that any kind of bypass in the immediate future could be bad for Belfair economically.
"From a planning standpoint, I hope the community vision is formed with a strong consideration of impacts on town," Petersen said. "A bypass with or without a commercial core along it, taking 50 percent of traffic out of town, would significantly hurt retailers and restauranteurs."
Petersen says that a bypass with a commercial emphasis would be devastating and that four lanes through town is possibly a better solution for traffic and businesses.
"Four lanes through town may fit in the present Department of Transportation 60-foot right-of-way with a planted median, pedestrian crossings and at the same time protect the economic vitality of downtown Belfair into the foreseeable future," Petersen said.
DAVID OVERTON, who sits on the planning committee and whose family owns over 700 acres of the 2,400-acre urban growth area or just over 30 percent of the total, says his family is still committed to seeing a bypass built.
"We'll always sit down and act in good faith with the county," he said. "We are not opposed to renegotiating the bypass agreement like we were in April when the commissioners walked away from the table."
When it comes to the idea of a four-lane traffic solution to State Route 3, Overton says "it's all speculation" and that he hasn't seen any concrete proposals or plans from the county.
OVERTON STRESSES that one of his biggest concerns has to do with the cost of the bypass now that it's off of the county's six-year plan. He says millions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent since the right-of-way agreement was signed in 1996.
Mason County Administrator Ron Henrickson, who says Belfair is one of the county's strongest commercial centers and is full of economic potential, concedes that with the bypass off the table more money will have to be spent, but says it will be "a fraction" of the original costs.
"If the question is, 'If the county proceeds to build the bypass in a long-term situation will the studies have to be updated?' the answer is yes, the studies will have to be updated," he said, adding that "the base data that has been compiled will be useful" for future efforts to build a bypass.
AT THE SAME time, though, some earlier studies will have to be redone or updated. One example would be a bypass-alternative study conducted by the Olympia-based engineering firm, Skillings Connelly, which specifically compared the bypass and the possibility of a 120-foot right-of-way through town.
"The alternative proposal for four lanes had a right-of-way of 120 feet," Henrickson said of the Skillings Connelly study. "The concept that will be explored this time will have far fewer feet which means the impacts would be far fewer than the original proposal. It's up to the committee whether they look at four lanes. We believe that's a consideration that may merit review. It has worked in other communities."
One such place, according to Henrickson, is University Place near Tacoma.
MIKE BOYLE, who was recently appointed by county commissioners to serve on the planning committee and serves as the president of the North Mason Chamber of Commerce, was involved in developing the University Place master plan in the early '80s. He says that the similarities between University Place prior to the construction of four lanes and Belfair with two lanes are remarkable.
While serving on a hospital advisory committee earlier this year, Boyle said that a commercially developed bypass would "kill town."
Boyle says that four lanes through University Place, with a median and controlled right turns, has reduced accidents by 50 percent and injuries by 70 percent. City officials from University Place say that four lanes can handle well over 40,000 cars a day, while State Route 3 in Belfair is presently handling just over 18,000 cars a day.
BOYLE SAYS the chamber is planning to take a group of interested community members on a sort of "field trip" to University Place in mid January to get a first-hand look at a possible alternative for State Route 3 in Belfair.
Jack Johnson, a lifetime resident of Belfair and local business owner who serves as a member of the planning committee, says that the challenges surrounding the bypass are not based in engineering. He says the real issue is the disagreement between the county and the Overtons.
"There needs to be a resolution to that contract where both parties agree, otherwise no one can proceed," Johnson said. "That isn't in sight so you have to look for other solutions which I believe exist. There are other options."
HENRICKSON, the county's administrator, says that if one of those options turns out to be four lanes, a bypass will still be built someday.
"The Washington State Department of Transportation, through their own studies, has indicated that even if four lanes were constructed in town, in the long term a bypass would still be necessary," he said.
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