Island County parks plan goes nontraditional

A bundle of paper known as the Island County parks plan could have a wide impact on how Whidbey Islanders recreate in the future.

Among the highlights of the plan is a policy to phase out the county’s investment in traditional recreation facilities, such as ball parks, and encourage hiking, bicycling and other low-impact activities. The policy guide suggests that hunting should be allowed in three large parks, but the areas should be closed to non-hunters during the season.

The Parks and Recreation Element on the county’s comprehensive plan was adopted by the county commissioners this week in a 2-1 vote. It allows the county to once again apply for park-related grant opportunities and replaces an older documents that long ago expired.

The county hired a consulting firm, MIG, Inc. of Portland, to help write the plan; it cost nearly $90,000. The Whidbey Camano Land Trust pledged to pay $30,000 of the fee in order to help the county manage its resources.

Joantha Guthrie, project manager in public works, said work started on the plan three years ago, when it was first placed on the annual review docket. One of the first steps in creating the plan, she said, was to inventory and classify all the property that the county owns. It turned out that the county has a lot more parkland than anyone realized.

“I was quite amazed that we have over 3,000 acres of park and habitat property,” Guthrie said.

She said a great deal of emphasis was placed in public outreach. There were stakeholder interviews, online surveys, focus groups and community intercept interviews; over 950 people participated. The participants identified “providing recreational activities” and protecting the natural environment” as the top two benefits of parks and open space.

Based on the public outreach, the parks planners decided that the county shouldn’t spend scarce resources on maintaining ballfields and tennis courts.

“Over and over again, the feedback was there are other groups that can do the active parks and recreations program and the county should not be in that business,” Guthrie said.

As a result, the plan includes some blunt language.

“Island County Parks will phase out its investment in traditional recreation opportunities, such as those found at Dan Porter, Dave Mackie, the Rhododendron ball fields, and Camano Park, by finding other providers to assume responsibility for the properties who will operate them for public use,” the plan states.

But Guthrie cautions that the new policy doesn’t mean the county will be shutting down these parks. Under the plan, county officials will work with other entities‚ such as school districts and park districts, to persuade  them to take over the parks and run programs.

In addition, Guthrie explained that the plan states hunting should continue to be allowed at Putney Woods, Greenbank South and Camano Ridge. But for safety’s sake, the parks should be closed to other uses during hunting season.

A few people complained about the plan during public hearings. The main concern is the plan’s lack of clarity about funding the parks department. The plan lays out a multi-faceted approach to funding the department, but without specifics. Officials explained that the plan is supposed to set the policy, but it will be up to commissioners to make decisions about funding.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson voted against the plan. She cited the lack of financial planning and said the plan will create unrealistic expectations in the public.

The county’s parks department was hit hard by the budget ax over the last few years, losing two-thirds of its funding. Because of a temporary change in state law, the county was able to fund the parks department this year from real estate excise taxes.

But, as the plan points out, a stable source of funding needs to be identified.


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