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A City Grows Up: Shoreline Votes To Found Own Water Utility

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Last Tuesday's general election marked a decisive moment for the city of Shoreline: 70 percent of voters there agreed to buy water services back from the city of Seattle and create their own water utility. 

For Shoreline, the main reason to buy back water services is local control. Shoreline began as a bedroom community in unincorporated King County, sought-after for the quality of its schools. The area officially became a city in 1996. Since then, Shoreline has been hard at work on developing a sense of place according to Mark Relph, Shoreline's Public Works Director. The city has invested in parks and spent millions to polish its section of Aurora Ave.

But Shoreline's tax base remains largely residential. Relph says the city needs to become more attractive to development. Being able to make decisions about new water service is part of that picture, he says.

"It truly is the city of Shoreline’s desire here to do something different. We have a kind of a different vision of how we would like to use the water utility. It’s not them," says Relph.

Shoreline's different vision involves a more aggressive approach to replacing pipes. Seattle Public Utilities makes it a policy to replace pipes that are showing signs of wear, but it doesn't replace pipes just because they are old. Shoreline says it believes in a higher standard. It will replace pipes it decides are too old.

For SPU's director of corporate policy, Judi Gladstone, Shoreline's approach doesn't make sense. "We do have pipes that are over a hundred years old and are functioning just fine," she says. But it doesn't matter why Shoreline wants to leave. This is about local control, she said. If Shoreline wants its own water utility, Seattle should not stand in the way. "We have to get along with our neighbors, that's part of it. Sometimes it comes with a bit of a higher cost."

That higher cost may be felt on both sides. Seattle will lose $3 million a year in revenue from Shoreline's decision. And Seattle may require Shoreline to pay more than the $26.6 million sale price previously agreed to.

Final separation will be messy. The SPU water system must be unzipped along 145th Street, causing lots of disruption. The two waters systems will be turned away from each other and rebuilt. Seattle will still send water over the Shoreline boundary, but it will charge less-lucrative wholesale rates. It will be up to Shoreline to take over water accounts, get a service fleet, and begin to maintain water service in its own way.

Help Carolyn Adolph follow up on this story.