County OKs Camp Casey plan

Darrel Hines, a business administrator for Seattle Pacific University, stands at the lecturn at an open public hearing Monday as he explains the university
Darrel Hines, a business administrator for Seattle Pacific University, stands at the lecturn at an open public hearing Monday as he explains the university's plans to expand Camp Casey. Island County Commissioners, seated at left, approved the university's proposal for a Special Review District for Camp Casey.
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A scheduled 15-minute public comment period turned into two and-a-half hours before Island County commissioners Monday as they allowed development at Camp Casey to move closer to a wilderness area.

Commissioners approved a special review district on behalf of Camp Casey's landowner, Seattle Pacific University. It was a major step in the school's plan to expand its conference facility at the camp, next to Fort Casey State Park.

But it was not a step taken without peril. The commissioners' meeting room was filled with members of the public, most of whom were there to object to the expansion plan. Though the commissioners told the standing-room-only crowd the time for public input was past -- the Island County planning commission held sparsely attended hearings on the subject in June -- many at Monday's meeting said they had just learned about the university's plan.

A land use master plan submitted by SPU calls for extending a road into the 43-acre forest at Camp Casey and building up to 50 cabins and several other buildings. Twenty-five of the cabins would replace existing campsites.

Two and-a-half acres marked for new construction would be in a National Heritage Site on the north end of the property.

Some in attendance were concerned that granting a special review district amendment to the county's comprehensive land-use plan would give the university carte blanche for developing Camp Casey.

Jeff Tate, assistant director of the county's planning department, said that isn't so.

"No regulations will be usurped or undermined," Tate said. "Every phase of the project will require permits and approval."

He said SPU could expand its facilities under the current "existing use" provision of the rural zoning encompassing Camp Casey. Adding a special review district would actually puts parameters on expansion, Tate said.

Taking his turn to speak, Darrel Hines, SPU associate vice president, portrayed the university as a good neighbor and "good steward of the land." He said while the university's Casey Conference Center has traditionally been geared toward young people who don't mind dormitory-type facilities, the university wants to attract a "more mature audience," in hopes of generating more revenue.

Nonetheless, the arguments against the project did not go unheard.

"These are legitimate concerns," he said of the opposition. "We hope our track record will help."

The three main areas of concern expressed by those addressing the commissioners were the cutting of trees, access to water, and increased traffic.

Steve Erickson, co-founder of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, expressed doubt about SPU's claim of being a good neighbor.

"Clearing five acres of an irreplaceable ancient forest does not exhibit environmental sensitivity," Erickson said, reading from a prepared statement. "SPU should make up its mind whether it's just another black-mailing earth-despoiling developer or an environmentally conscious steward that wants to be a good neighbor."

Erickson and several others told the commissioners cutting trees in the interior of the forest would leave the remaining trees vulnerable to being blown down by high winds that whip the area in winter. Project opponent Bill Viertel spoke from experience, saying he lives in a nearby area that was partially cleared and has experienced extensive blowdown damage.

"It doesn't matter if you don't cut the heritage forest, it will blow down if the integrity is destroyed," he said. "I guarantee you, this plan is flawed."

While the public was repeatedly assured about the checks and balances of the permit process, opponents weren't buying the argument.

Marianne Edaine, also of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, urged the commissioners to address the project as a whole, just as the forest is a whole.

"If the woven mat (of roots) is broken, you can kiss the whole forest goodbye," she said. "You can't cut out a chunk and expect it to operate as a whole."

The commissioners noted concerns about water use and traffic problems, but said those will be addressed as they arise in the permit process.

In rendering their decision, the commissioners restated that SPU had a long history of being a good neighbor.

"In my opinion SPU has done, over the last 50 years, everything we could hope they could do," Commissioner Mike Shelton said. "Now is not the time to turn on them and make the ongoing operation impossible."

Commissioner Bill Thorn, in making a motion to approve the amendment, chided those in attendance for "putting the cart way before the horse," and for not speaking up earlier, during the public hearings.

"If you're going to be engaged, then get engaged," he said.

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