A tight housing market in the Oak Harbor area is raising concerns regarding upcoming growth at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and the city’s capacity to handle the demand for housing.
Community and Navy leaders, real estate professionals and developers and community members gathered to discuss the issue Monday night at the Oak Harbor School District office.
Limited rentals, a limited number of homes for sale, limited space for development and rising rent prices are contributing to the tight market. But it shouldn’t be called a crisis, said Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns.
“I would never call it a crisis, I would call it an opportunity,” Severns told the crowd of just under 100.
According to Rick Chapman, owner of Coldwell Banker Tara Properties in Oak Harbor, there is about a one-month supply of homes for sale in the area from Libby Road to Deception Pass, based on his own unofficial analysis. Rentals are even tighter and the cost to rent is rising.
“Rents on North Whidbey have gone up in the last two years probably 30 to 40 percent in some cases, 25 percent average overall,” he said.
At the heart of the matter is the growth already beginning at NAS Whidbey. According to the base’s new commanding officer, Capt. Geoff Moore, the base will be getting three new maritime patrol squadrons from Hawaii over the next 20 months.
“Each one of those squadrons is approximately 300 people,” he said. “Based on the way the Navy moves people, we actually have some of those members already moving into the local area.”
Moore said the Navy defines a housing area by a one-hour drive from the installation. That means the housing area for NAS Whidbey includes Langley to the south, Anacortes to the north and the I-5 corridor to the east including Burlington, Mount Vernon and Sedro-Wooley.
“So when the Navy looks at the housing market, we do our analysis on these areas and do they have the capacity for our growth,” he said.
Moore said the last housing analysis done by NAS Whidbey completed last summer, there were about 18,000 rentals in that one-hour perimeter. That seems like plenty until one considers that most personnel prefer to stay closer to the base.
“What we found in our most recent housing analysis done by our director in the last couple of weeks is that about 70 percent of our current personnel live in the Oak Harbor district,” Moore said. “After that Anacortes and Coupeville are the most popular places.”
That represents uniformed personnel only, said Moore, and does not include more than 2,000 civilian government employees who work on base.
School District Growth
Any growth associated with the Navy has a direct impact on the number of Navy-connected children who attend school in Oak Harbor. Superintendent Lance Gibbon said the growth within the district’s schools is welcome, but challenging. Already the district is seeing unexpected growth.
“We actually received more students this fall than we would have predicted just based on the formulas,” he said.
Projections based on the standard district growth formulas show there could be a potential increase of more than 700 new students connected to Navy personnel.
“One of the challenges is where would 7- or 800 new students live in the Oak Harbor School District? There is not the housing available, we know that,” Gibbon said. “So we’ve actually already begun to adjust our figures with that in mind.
“We expect that there will be some initial influx, but once the housing maxes out, it’s going to level out over the next few years even though the base personnel may increase,” he continued. “As the skipper mentioned, about 70 percent of personnel live in the Oak Harbor School District, but even more of those are families, and of about 90 percent of base personnel with children, their children are in the Oak Harbor schools.”
Gibbon said more than half of student in the district are Navy-connected. That doesn’t mean just active duty personnel, but also includes civilian base employees. Gibbon said the district had 188 new Navy-connected students this year and an additional 50 to 60 civilian students. They are expecting about 200 more students this fall. Most of that growth, said Gibbon, is in elementary enrollment.
The district is addressing the needed capacity in a few ways, said Gibbon. It has already added 20 portable classrooms, and will have 28 state-of-the-art portables by this fall serving elementary schools. But that only gets the district through next year, so district officials will reconfigure existing schools.
“In the fall of 2017, we’re going to be creating a grade five-six intermediate school and a grade seven-eight middle school,” he said. “The intermediate school will be located where Oak Harbor Middle School is now, and seven-eight will be at North Whidbey.
“So rather than add more portables to already crowded elementary campuses, we’re going to actually move the fifth-graders out and we’ll add them to these two campuses where we’ll have the facilities and space,” continued Gibbon. “We might have to add a few portables here but not nearly as many, and that actually gives us capacity for growth at the elementary level.”
Gibbon said the district has already spent $2.5 million from its general fund on portable classrooms. Gibbon did not rule out the possibility of building an additional school, but said that would have to be determined by the numbers over the next few years.
Building and Land Capacity
Housing availability has been a current topic at the city for some time, according to Development Services Director Steve Powers, and the city is planning for a population increase of more than 3,700 over the next 20 years.
“That projected growth includes an increase that we believe is directly related to Navy growth that we’ve made an educated guess will reside in Oak Harbor,” said Powers. That figure does reflect the anticipated leveling off of growth at the base.
Powers said while it may be fair to say there isn’t as much land out there for development, the city has to look at more than just large, undeveloped pieces of property.
“A lot of times people stop me and say there just isn’t that much land out there,” he said. “That’s true if we’re thinking about big, green acre fields. But we’re not allowed to look only at those properties. We have to look at redevelopment potential of properties that already have a unit on them.”
Of those partially developed lots, the city has to determine just how much of the space is actually useable. While a property may have enough space for five lots, for example, that may not be the case if the building is located right in the middle of it.
“If we look at Oak Harbor in general, our untapped potential at this point, if you want to call it that, is primarily in the southwest portion of the community,” Powers said. “There are smaller parcels scattered all throughout the fabric of Oak Harbor. They’re not the things that leap to your mind when you think about development potential, but it is part of what we have to count and take into consideration.”
In terms of meeting the upcoming demands for housing, Powers pointed to potential projects. Island Place was recently approved for 66 single family housing units and the Marin Woods proposal would add 43 single family homes. Pre-applications filed within the last six months included proposals for 59 single family homes, 30 townhouses and a total of 31 apartment units.
Overall, officials are confident the city will be able to meet the housing demand.
“It looks like we have enough capacity to handle our projected growth,” said Powers. “The real take away is we’re not going to be able to add large tracts of undeveloped property to our urban growth area with the sole purpose of developing subdivisions. We’re going to have to work inside our existing boundaries.”
“I wanted to get you thinking together, working together,” said Severns as the meeting concluded. “Hopefully these numbers and ideas can be opportunities for you and for the people that are coming here.”