Coalition wants to be in planning process

So, what does the future hold for Island County: Fast food restaurants or small-scale farms, commercial eyesores or agricultural edens, space, sprawl or perhaps something somewhere in between?

For a group of Island County residents, there is no appropriate in-between, and now they want to make sure people have an official say-so on protecting their countryside from poor business planning.

Concerned that the state highways running the length of Whidbey Island could turn into a sprawling commercial area much like Seattle's Aurora Avenue, members of the Island County Smart Growth Coalition asked the Planning Commission last week to be let in on future development decisions.

The coalition represents the concerns of islanders who feel that too much unreviewed commercial development could sully the appeal of Whidbey Island, said the group's president, Tom Fisher, last week.

"We want to bring the public into this process prior to businesses being vested," Fisher said at a May 28 Island County Planning Commission meeting in Coupeville.

Fisher's group is asking to add a design review board component to the county's comprehensive plan. He said that without direct involvement by the community through design review boards, many commercial developments might fail to preserve the rural and historic nature of their surrounding areas. As an example of the kinds of structures the coalition finds antithetical to Island County's rural character, Fisher pointed to a new Shell gas station in Freeland, which he likened to a "hovercraft."

Planning Director Phil Bakke, who has worked extensively with coalition members in the past, said he empathizes with those who want to preserve Whidbey's rural character, adding that he is not at all interested in the "Aurora-ization" of the county. However, Bakke said, he feels the comp plan sets up strict enough guidelines to accomplish everything the coalition wants.

"It's our experience that it is lighting, signage and vast, long strips of commercial development that create that Highway 99 look," Bakke said. "I don't want that to happen here either, but what would Aurora look like if for every mile of commercial development there were 15 miles of houses?"

For Fisher, however, the county's guidelines need another degree of stringency, one that allows more community involvement.

At the planning commission meeting, Fisher pitched a new amendment to the county's Comprehensive Plan that would allow the coalition more input on important development issues. Under the coalition's plan, two design review boards would be set up to scrutinize future site plans for any business looking to plant itself on the island, prior even to the property being vested. The districts would coincide with Commissioner Districts 1 and 3, leaving out Dist. 2 which encompasses the Oak Harbor region.

In particular, the review boards would concern themselves with Rural Areas of Intense Development, or RAIDs. Such commercially zoned areas were designated by the comp plan to help prevent sprawl into the countryside, though Fisher said further safeguards should be erected even within these areas. It is the coalition's contention that pre-screening all business projects set to take place in existing RAIDs will better protect the rural look along the highways. He said this would also help promote tourist trade.

"We want area specific guidelines," Fisher said. "The best way to incorporate that is to establish a community group that would meet with the developer prior to any hard plans being set down on paper."

As indicated in the coalition's proposed amendment, which was originally submitted January 31 and then amended in April, design review boards would be comprised in part by architectural and landscape professionals. At least one member per board would also sit on the county's planning commission.

Fisher said the boards would not only save the scenery, but could help businesses be successful.

"It's pretty much a win-win situation for everybody," he said. "If the developer has a chance to meet with the public, they could integrate the input into their plan and save a lot of heartache down the road."

Fisher said that the whole process would expedite the permitting process and even save the county money down the road by circumventing confrontations and potential litigation.

It is on the issue of government expense Bakke disagreed with Fisher. He said operating review boards is "too expensive."

Bakke said he's confident the comp plan, as it now works, has sufficient protections to address the coalition's concerns. He also said that his department recently changed the way commercial projects are reviewed -- Bakke now looks over all site plans prior to issuance.

Fisher, who said that he and Bakke are "not very far apart" on what's best for the county, nonetheless feels that the way things happen now doesn't quite cut it. He said there is currently a disconnect between incoming commercial projects and the communities they are meant to serve, a situation he believes needs a change.

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