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Protesters stand by as Exxon work begins

"While others were mulling legal action, some South Whidbey residents took to the streets Sunday to protest the Exxon gas station and car wash complex approved by the Island County Hearing Examiner last week.Fittingly, it was raining heavily on the area that opponents claim is a wetland. After Hearing Examiner Michael Bobbink's ruling Thursday, the property owners -- A-OOK Corner Properties -- quickly went to work digging ditches with a backhoe and otherwise preparing the land for development.Jim Lehman, whose family sold the 2.73-acre property at Fish Road and Highway 525 to the developers, was out in the field, shovel in hand, keeping drainage ditches clear. The mounds of freshly unearthed topsoil would be removed and the area filled with sand, he said.As Lehman worked, protesters were taking their places on Fish Road and the highway, waving signs protesting the development.Lehman didn't think the protesters would change anything.It's too late, he said.The protest was organized by WEAN (Whidbey Environmental Action Network) and included members of PROUD (People for Reasonable, Organized Urban Development), as well as people who are unassociated with either group but who wanted to make their feelings known.The signs spoke for themselves in many cases:Hex on ExxonIf They Build It Do Not ComeNo ExxonRename this street the Anti-Fish RoadNo Strip MallsWEAN leader Steve Erickson busied himself collecting water samples in jars. One clear sample he said came from the wetland just south of the A-OOK property; a clouded, silt-laden sample he said came from run-off from the development project. The same silted water could be seen draining from the A-OOK property through a culvert under Fish Road and into an undisturbed wetland on the other side. Erickson saved both jars of water as evidence, perhaps for some future legal appeal. Erickson was adamant that the county made a mistake by deciding last fall that the area was not a wetland. Why wouldn't the county hold off for a few weeks and see this area during the wettest time of the year, he said.Appeals are costly, but those present were willing to contribute. I was just shocked when I saw they were digging -- there's still an appeal time, said Ann Linnea. I live in Freeland, and I'll help pay for an appeal.Nicole Luce stared at what had already happened to the land and declared, They are destroying the evidence.Peggy Moore, covered by a colorful umbrella, has been a bed and breakfast owner for about 15 years, and she doesn't want to see a gas station in the empty lot. People don't want it, she said. It's not good for our whole island. The sprawl is starting.A-OOK partner Mick Olsen said the protest will accomplish little beyond garnering some public sympathy, but not enough to cause problems for his project.From what I'm hearing in the community, it's not a majority, he said.As many as 25 people at a time lined the roadways from 9:30 a.m. until about noon on Sunday. Many passersby honked in support, while others disagreed. One young man drove his four-wheel drive pickup truck onto the property and spun his tires in the mud, in apparent defiance of the protesters. He was stopped and ticketed by an Island County Sheriff's deputy when he pulled his truck onto Highway 525, which caused the protesters to erupt in cheers and laughter.Demonstrators turned out again on Tuesday morning for another round of protests.(Reporters Chris Douthitt and Matt Johnson contributed to this story.) "

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