Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Leavenworth City Council Candidate Forum Addresses Key Issues


LEAVENWORTH - In a display of civic engagement, Leavenworth's Cascade High School auditorium played host to a candidate forum on the evening of Oct. 5 as candidates vying for seats on the Leavenworth City Council took center stage. This forum, organized by The Residents Coalition of Chelan County and moderated by former county commissioner Bob Burgert, offered a much-anticipated platform for candidates to articulate their vision for the city's future while addressing a gamut of pressing concerns.

Recreation and open spaces

As the event unfurled, the evening's agenda began with an examination of how Leavenworth will safeguard and expand its recreation and open spaces, even as urban development continues to reshape the landscape. Candidates took to the microphone with diverse approaches, underscoring the importance of prudent urban planning and sustainable growth. The overarching theme that emerged was a collective commitment to preserving the natural beauty that defines Leavenworth while ensuring equitable access to recreational opportunities for all residents.

Each candidate brought their own unique perspective to the forefront:

Marco Aurilio emphasized the existing recreation plan for Leavenworth, which features open spaces and facilities such as tennis courts. He championed the creation of community gathering spaces akin to tourist attractions like the Adventure Park.

Travis McMaster saw the importance of focusing on the city's youth, suggesting exploration of private funding options for a community center with an indoor pool, with an eye toward hosting tournaments and events that would benefit the community.

Tibor Lak, in contrast, proposed optimizing the use of existing green spaces within the city, including the golf course and Champion Park. He also hinted at leveraging agreements and contracts to provide access to a wide spectrum of activities.

Rhona Baron, on the other hand, raised concerns about the lack of a comprehensive green management infrastructure plan for the city's growing areas. She advocated for a holistic approach to preserving green spaces and enhancing the environment as urban development marches forward.

Polly McIntyre acknowledged the influx of tourists to the city's trails and rivers and sought ways to address visitor overflow. She asserted the importance of maintaining green spaces for recreation and community gatherings, especially as the city experiences densification.

Shane Thayer stressed the significance of indoor recreation options within Leavenworth and expressed support for the establishment of an indoor pool or Aquatic Center. He also underscored the importance of responsible maintenance of open spaces like Champion Park.


Another hot-button issue emerged from recent city surveys - housing density. An overwhelming 56% of respondents disagreed with the notion of higher housing density within Leavenworth's limits. Candidates were called upon to clarify their stances and articulate the residential densities they supported. The responses varied widely, reflecting the complexity of the issue:

Tibor Lak noted the complexity of the housing density matter, asserting that it depends on the location. He supported higher density in certain areas, particularly in the context of accessory dwelling units, while opposing it on small residential lots.

Rhona Baron acknowledged the multifaceted nature of the issue, expressing reservations about densification on small lots. She contended that a more comprehensive approach involving various stakeholders was required to tackle the housing problem effectively.

Polly McIntyre raised concerns about the impact of increased density on permeable surfaces and water drainage. She urged the city to strike a balance between density and environmental preservation, advocating partnerships with neighboring cities for workforce housing solutions.

Shane Thayer briefly alluded to the challenges posed by high-density housing in Leavenworth but did not delve into specifics.

Marco Aurilio underscored the importance of sustainable and workforce housing, emphasizing the need to maintain diversity and curb excessive second-home ownership. He advocated for a range of density zones and solutions inspired by successful models in other tourist towns.

Travis McMaster shared his positive experience living in a high-density unit, positing that density could foster a sense of community. He highlighted the need to help residents afford to live in Leavenworth and the imperative of providing tools to address the housing issue.

Infrastructure: water, sewer, and roads

The notion that "growth pays for growth" emerged as another pivotal discussion point. Leavenworth's comprehensive plan stipulates that developers must shoulder the cost of infrastructure improvements necessitated by their projects. Candidates were called upon to assess the effectiveness of these policies, igniting a spirited debate on the subject:

Polly McIntyre emphasized the urgency of infrastructure upgrades within the city and underscored that developers shouldn't bear the sole responsibility for these enhancements. She highlighted the city's ongoing efforts to upgrade infrastructure, including sewers and roads, block by block, and proposed factoring in infrastructure impacts when evaluating new developments.

Shane Thayer acknowledged the existence of policies linking growth with necessary improvements but contended that they could be more effective. He posited that developers might be reluctant to shoulder these costs, potentially hampering housing development. He suggested exploring alternative funding sources for essential improvements.

Marco Aurilio, cognizant of the aging infrastructure, noted that the current policies were being implemented fairly well. However, he advocated for developers to be held accountable for the infrastructure directly tied to their projects. He also proposed securing grants to support infrastructure upgrades.

Travis McMaster expressed appreciation for the Public Works Department's efforts in managing infrastructure growth amid a burgeoning population. He contended that the city was doing an admirable job overall in planning for infrastructure growth and development. He conceded that there might be instances where developers couldn't feasibly cover all infrastructure costs.

Tibor Lak underscored the principle of development self-funding and insisted that developers should finance infrastructure beneficial to their projects. He advanced a strategy where developers would cover the cost of upsizing infrastructure for future growth. He also broached the challenge of juggling road repairs while vying for grants to fund improvements.

Rhona Baron shone a spotlight on critical infrastructure issues such as poor roads, fire hazards, and water leakage. She expressed frustration that policies tied to growth weren't being effectively executed. Rhona highlighted missed opportunities to mandate affordability, green spaces, and superior infrastructure in new developments and advocated for elevating development standards to benefit citizens.

Sustainable tourism

Balancing the needs of Leavenworth's residents with its burgeoning tourist economy, a pillar of the city's tax base, was another intricate topic of discussion. Candidates explored strategies to maintain equilibrium between catering to tourists and ensuring the well-being of the city's residents:

Travis McMaster expressed appreciation for the Chamber of Commerce's efforts to distribute tourist visits more evenly and promote sustainable tourism. He extolled the importance of extending tourists' stays and was optimistic about the development of Front Street.

Marco Aurilio supported the idea of creating a European-style walking plaza on Front Street, soliciting community input in the decision-making process. He proposed using lodging tax revenue to construct facilities like an aquatic center, benefitting tourists and the local community.

Rhona Baron, leveraging her tourism background and insights from global tourism conferences, stressed the need to strike a balance between attracting tourists and safeguarding downtown businesses. She suggested initiatives like free midweek parking for residents to invigorate downtown businesses and foster better connections between residents and tourists.

Tibor Lak emphasized the vital role of tourism in fueling the city's economy, particularly in funding essential services and job creation. He posited the idea of supporting small home-based businesses to bolster the local economy, underlining tourism's indispensable role in sustaining Leavenworth's economy.

Shane Thayer focused on the imperative of providing housing for town workers to support the tourism industry. He advocated for robust infrastructure maintenance to accommodate visitors and a calendar of events spread throughout the year to alleviate congestion during peak seasons.

Polly McIntyre recognized Leavenworth's triumph as a tourist destination, especially during the festive Christmas season. She acknowledged the challenges posed by over-tourism and offered a suite of strategies to distribute tourist visits through incentives and promotions. Polly championed collaborative efforts to fashion creative solutions for tourism management.

Citizen involvement

A common goal that resonated among candidates was to amplify resident engagement in local issues and decision-making. They offered proactive measures to foster deeper connections with the community and underscored the pivotal role of residents in shaping the city's future:

Rhona Baron championed enhanced communication and listening skills among politicians. She pointed out the need for more community engagement avenues, including open mics and dialogues. Baron said she would be an ardent advocate for transparency, ensuring that residents were well-informed about pivotal changes.

Tibor Lak acknowledged the value of community engagement events and urged residents to actively participate in city council meetings. He pointed out the allocated time on meeting agendas for residents to voice concerns and pose questions. He did, however, clarify that free parking might not be legally tenable.

Shane Thayer said he was committed to maintaining open lines of communication and appealed to younger voters to engage actively. He commended the city's strides in providing digital access to financial information and ongoing projects. Thayer endorsed regular surveys as a tool to fathom residents' priorities.

Polly McIntyre expressed concern about the sparse attendance at council meetings and the oft-overlooked influence of resident input. She advocated for forums that galvanize the community to discuss and share ideas. She pointed out that people yearned to be heard and that diverse perspectives held the potential to galvanize community growth.

Travis McMaster lauded the transparency and accessibility of Leavenworth's government and shared experiences from other towns where connecting with local government appeared more onerous. He encouraged residents to tap into available information and involvement opportunities.

Marco Aurilio stressed the importance of representing the community and attentively listening to residents. He advocated for the implementation of regular surveys to glean residents' opinions and ardently supported integrating the voices of young people and children into decision-making processes.

Fire danger

As the forum delved into recent events spotlighting the wildfire risks confronting Leavenworth, candidates probed specific local actions aimed at mitigating these dangers. Their responses encompassed improved forest management, community education, and collaboration with neighboring jurisdictions to bolster emergency response capabilities.

Shane Thayer, sharing his firsthand experience with fire threats in Leavenworth, underscored the importance of educating residents about fire preparedness. He extolled the need for prescribed burns and Firewise programs while advocating for evaluations of propane tank proximity to homes.

Polly McIntyre flagged the urgency of a city-wide evacuation plan and the critical need for robust communication with citizens in the event of a fire. She also underscored the necessity of understanding the city's resources, particularly water supply, during emergencies and the importance of designated safe zones.

Travis McMaster, as a newcomer to Leavenworth, voiced concerns about the absence of a clear evacuation plan and residents' unfamiliarity with fire response protocols. He pressed for measures to address these issues comprehensively for all residents and tourists alike.

Marco Aurilio, drawing from his background as a retired firefighter, delved into the importance of retrofitting homes to safeguard against embers, the primary culprits behind home fires during wildfires. He also probed measures to prevent fires, including the installation of sprinkler systems.

Rhona Baron, conscious of Leavenworth's precarious terrain, with its steep canyons and dense conifer cover, emphasized the vulnerability of the city to wildfires. She drew attention to concerns regarding water supply and the lack of a comprehensive evacuation plan, especially given the bottlenecked highway.

Tibor Lak proposed practical measures such as eliminating shake roofs and cleaning gutters to reduce fire risk. He also highlighted the presence of existing emergency management plans in Chelan County but stressed the importance of cross-agency collaboration.

As Leavenworth residents grapple with their choices for the upcoming City Council election, the forum offered invaluable insights into the positions and priorities of the candidates. With the November election date fast approaching, these nuanced discussions are set to loom large in the minds of voters as they cast their ballots, knowing that the future of their beloved city hangs in the balance.



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