By Ken Stern 

La Conner needs to plan for more than just floods


The Town of La Conner’ s emergency management commission will start meeting monthly after half a year of bi-weekly sessions. It has made some progress and is settling into a routine. The town council and mayor moved quickly to form the commission after December’s Swinomish Channel flooding got their attention.

Maybe emergencies are required to form commissions and plan solutions to past problems. Will it take a flood of homeless people floating into taking up residency in Pioneer Park to engage town leaders to move toward significant development of working class rental housing?

No one in La Conner: elected officials, town staff, activists or this newspaper, saw, much less grasped, the opportunity and possibilities for working family housing when Dave Hedlin offered to sell his family’s Maple Avenue property in 2020. Let’s not hide behind the crisis of the pandemic that spring for our inaction. Collectively, we were asleep at the switch. Water was not flowing into any of our or our neighbors homes. There was neither panic nor foresight.

Three years later there is no ad hoc committee much less a commission enshrined in an ordinance committed to creating a single residence for farmhands, town clerks or restaurant staff. The half-acre property essentially gifted by the Jenson siblings lies fallow, with no timetable or deadline to have action realized.

There is neither a formal nor informal relationship with The Port of Skagit, which in May 2022 brainstormed possibilities, including housing, on 13 acres it wants to redevelop at the La Conner Marina north of Sullivan Slough. No, for housing for people who do not already own homes or cannot buy homes, there are no plans, no task forces, no agendas or deadlines, much less a vision for moving from the dead center status quo.

It is not that we do not know the need. It is not that we cannot assemble the experts. Building on expert knowledge is the foundation for leaping into the future. State planners estimate 1,000,000 new homes are needed in Washington by 2044. Maybe 40,000 are being built annually. Math provides the stark outcome that the shortage will be 200,000 twenty years out.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge” Albert Einstein wrote. Whether it is nuclear bombs or apartment buildings, they will not get built if they are not imagined first.

Most people agree that having more businesses offering more good jobs at good wages is a good vision. Most of us embrace employees walking or biking to work.

And while La Conner is landlocked with a small, defined footprint, space for hundreds of apartment units for those future workers awaits the vision to unlock it. On North Third Street south of Sullivan Slough lies acres of way underutilized parking behind the Swinomish Yacht Club. That can be more readily built on than the Port’s property to the north.

And, no one has fingered the biggest prize piece of land, literally under the Town’s nose. And the Town owns it: it is the South Third Street parking lot. Parking can remain – the area laps the channel food zone – while two stories of apartments are built above it.

Nonprofits, foundations and state agencies await the invitation to participate in envisioning, planning, funding and constructing La Conner Landings. That is a future a housing and sustainability commission can spend years meeting over while shaping a sustainable reality that will put La Conner on the map as the little town that not only talks, argues and meets, but actually creates a community that families can grow up in.


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