Housing, growth shape Warrenton mayor’s race

Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer, left, and John Washington take part in a candidate forum at Astoria High School in early October.

WARRENTON — Housing, managing future growth in Warrenton and development in Hammond top the list for the mayoral candidates in Warrenton.

Mayor Henry Balensifer, communications manager for Lektro Inc., faces challenger John Washington, a retired automotive technician and commercial truck driver, in the November election.

Balensifer has served on both the Planning Commission and the City Commission. He was appointed as mayor last year to serve out what remained in former Mayor Mark Kujala’s term after Kujala stepped down.

Washington is a political newcomer who was inspired to run by what he believes is a lack of transparency in city leadership.

Housing has dominated political debates leading up to the November election, with many candidates linking an apparent rise in homelessness with a lack of affordable and workforce-priced housing.

In Warrenton, preliminary results from a countywide housing study suggest there is not a lack of apartments in the city, said Balensifer, who chairs the housing study’s technical advisory committee. Rather, there’s a lack of houses that first-time home buyers or younger families can afford.

Balensifer says the housing study will provide valuable insight into how city leaders can go about encouraging development of the housing Warrenton needs.

But Washington thinks the city could be doing more to encourage low-income housing, perhaps through tax incentives.

“They need to take care of what’s in front of them and figure out how we can get our hands on property to promote low-income housing,” he said. Some of the bigger stores that have set up shop in Warrenton in recent years do not offer high-paying jobs, he added. Families are making do on minimum wage.

Both men have referenced experience in their bids for mayor. 

Balensifer, 29, who grew up in Warrenton, highlights his many years of experience. Besides his service as an elected official and his involvement with the county housing study, he is involved with the Warrenton High School Fisheries Program — he founded a nonprofit to rebuild the program — as well as various regional economic development and tourism and business promotion organizations.

Washington, 54, on the other hand, points to his lack of political experience as a selling point. He comes to the role of mayor with no agenda, he said. Washington, who moved to Hammond 19 years ago, has spent the campaign going door to door. The job of the mayor is to be the voice of the people, he said. If elected, he plans to continue going door to door to listen to people’s concerns.

Balensifer disputes Washington’s claim that city leaders don’t listen to citizens. He has held several town hall-style meetings since his appointment to mayor and hosts “coffee with the mayor” events each Monday. As the city pursues an economic development strategy, he has purposefully held meetings in both Warrenton and Hammond.

The city is also in the middle of updating a number of plans that Balensifer believes will guide the city into the future. He pushed for an update to the city’s vision plan, a document that would require a high degree of public input. A vision plan provides an “overarching, balcony view of what you want your town to look like,” Balensifer said.

“In city government, if it isn’t in the plan, you can’t invest in it,” he noted.

For Balensifer, housing issues and quality of life questions fall under an even bigger category: Growth management.

As the area experiences rapid development, the city has had to weather numerous growing pains. City staffing levels remain relatively the same even as demands for service increase. Intersections have become busier and more fraught. Housing projects bloom in neighborhoods. The City Commission has spent much of the last two years discussing ways to encourage development that does not compromise residents’ quality of life.

But Washington believes some of the city’s plans may make life for people in Hammond more difficult.

The city is poised to take over ownership of the Hammond Marina from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, something Balensifer has been involved with as well. City ownership of the marina is key for Hammond’s future development, he said. 

“Hammond’s downtown has always been tied to that marina,” Balensifer said. The marina gets heavy use during the summer salmon fishing season, but is not nearly as bustling as it once was. 

The city has two downtowns, one in Warrenton and one in Hammond, Balensifer said. Both have unique characters and characteristics. With the marina under city ownership and the construction of a $1.6 million water line to Hammond, Balensifer sees the possibility for more in what has been a sleepy and often underserved area. 

Washington disagrees. He believes greater development around the marina, rather than serving as an economic engine for the area, would create parking problems and traffic congestion in neighborhoods. Hammond would be better served with basic street improvements and the installation of streetlights and sidewalks, he said.

Both men emphasize that, if elected, they would be part of a team with the four City Commissioners, just one vote out of five. It is here where Balensifer sees an advantage over his opponent. 

“I have a vision for this city that the City Commission also shares,” he said.

And, both men note, if the mayor can’t get along with fellow commissioners, it doesn’t work out well.  

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