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Island County commissioner candidate embroiled in permit allegations

During a Thursday night forum, Kelly Emerson, a Republican candidate for county commissioner, defends herself from allegations that she and her husband did construction work without a permit. Incumbent Commissioner John Dean has criticized her over the issue. - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
During a Thursday night forum, Kelly Emerson, a Republican candidate for county commissioner, defends herself from allegations that she and her husband did construction work without a permit. Incumbent Commissioner John Dean has criticized her over the issue.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

Island County Commissioner John Dean sent out about 20,000 copies of a mailer this week that his Republican opponent, Kelly Emerson, characterized as “a hit piece” and “mudslinging.”

But even more significant, perhaps, is the story behind the negative ad. The alleged county code violation by Emerson and her husband may be even more serious and long-standing than is indicated in the mailer, while she accuses Dean of inappropriately using his authority to pressure the planning department to pursue the issue.

The mailer criticizes Emerson, a Camano Island resident, for “knowing and willful violation” of county building codes for construction work that was being done on her home without a permit.

“We don’t need leaders who think they’re above the law. Island County can do better than Kelly Emerson,” the mailer concludes.

In response, Emerson issued a press release decrying the “attack mailer” as “the dirtiest piece I’ve seen.”

“I’m getting a lot of calls from people who think that it’s pathetic. These are people who planned to vote for John Dean, but now are switching sides,” she said Thursday afternoon.

In her press release, Emerson goes on to accuse Dean, a Democrat, of violating county regulations and protocols in manufacturing an “October surprise.” In an interview in September, she said Dean deviated from the standard process in effectively siccing the planning department on her.

“It was interesting to see how fast the planning department can go when politically motivated,” she said.

The controversy surrounds an enclosed patio that Emerson said her husband was building on the back of their Camano home. She explained that her husband, Kenneth, started work on the project before she got done with the drawings. She admits that he did “about 10 hours of work” before even beginning the necessary permitting process or paying the fee; he started the process the day before the stop-work order was issued.

At a candidates’ forum Thursday, Emerson said her husband did the unpermitted work when she was busy campaigning.

“From time to time, my husband needs adult supervision,” she said.

According to documents obtained by the News-Times, one of Emerson’s neighbors sent an email to Dean’s home email Aug. 30, complaining that the Emersons were adding onto their home without a building permit.

Emerson said it was astonishing that county planning staff was at her property the very same day, issuing a stop-work order.

Dean explained that the normal process when he receives such a complaint is to pass it on to the planning department; sometimes he even directs staff to take a certain action. But since the issue involved his opponent, he realized the political implications.

“In this case, a perceived conflict of interest clearly exists,” Dean wrote, then urged the woman to report the issue directly to the county’s code enforcement officer, effectively leaving himself out of the controversy.

And yet, Dean immediately forwarded the woman’s email and his response to County Planning Director Bob Pederson, along with his fellow commissioners and the administrative assistants in the commissioners’ office, with the message “FYI.” In an interview, Dean explained that he forwarded the complaint because he felt Pederson should know what was going on, plus he felt there should be a public record of the issue.

After receiving the forwarded email, Pederson said he immediately asked a member of his staff to look into the allegation that the Emersons were building without a permit. An Island County building official issued a stop-work order Aug. 30. The department didn’t receive a formal written complaint from the neighbor woman until Sept. 2.

Emerson pointed to the county planning department website, which clearly states complaints from citizens about code violations must be written on a formal complaint form and then mailed to the department. She said the speed of the planning department’s action — before a formal complaint — is suspicious to her and many others in the community; one woman told her she’s been complaining about a neighbor’s unpermitted project for more than a year without action by the county.

“That’s the kind of stuff I’m hearing,” Emerson said.

In a Sept. 13 email to the county building official, Kenneth Emerson questioned who filed the complaint against him. He wrote that he asked a member of county staff and the staff member replied, “The call came from Coupeville.”

Yet Pederson said the department’s long-standing policy is to immediately investigate and issue stop-work orders when the department receives any information about someone building without a permit. He said it’s easier on everyone involved if compliance checks on structures occur early on.

In investigating the construction, county Building Official Andy Griffin discovered that the Emersons may be knowingly building within a restricted wetland buffer. When the Emersons were issued a building permit for a garage in 2008, the permit states that “the building footprint as staked lies outside the 100 foot buffer. No objection to issuance of permit as long as footprint is not moved any closer. Further development/clearing in wetland buffer must be approved by ICPCD.”

Griffin concluded in a letter to Kenneth Emerson that the construction was “a knowing and willful violation” because he had been warned that any new construction in the wetland buffer required approval from the county.

Then in an Oct. 1 letter to Kenneth and Kelly Emerson, county Code Enforcement Officer Andrew Hicks wrote that county staff had discovered the couple had also built a covered porch, another structure and a wall within 50 feet of a stream and wetland feature, all possibly in violation of the county’s critical areas ordinance.

“Staff has also determined that structures have been constructed on the subject parcel without prior approval of required building permits,” the letter states.

Hicks continued that the Emersons can take actions to bring the property into compliance with county code and avoid formal enforcement action, which could amount to $5,000 for critical area violations, as well as a daily $500 fine for each day the violations continue unabated. The Emersons must submit a wetland report, prepared by a professional, within 30 days of receiving Hicks’ letter. The report will delineate the wetland and stream boundaries. In addition, they must submit building permits for all non-exempt structures within 21 days.

Emerson said she doesn’t believe a wetland even exists.

After learning about all of this, Dean said he felt compelled to tell the public about Emerson’s “lack of respect for government.” He admits to “thinking long and hard” about going negative, but ultimately decided it was a matter of fairness. If he had violated county code, he said, everyone would criticize him for being a hypocrite. He felt Emerson, as a candidate, should be held to the same standard.

“It is a big deal. An elected official or a candidate needs to follow the law,” he said.

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