WEAN wins its Camp Casey tussle with SPU

Seattle Pacific University's plan to expand Camp Casey has been struck down by a state hearings board.

Earlier this year, the Whidbey Environmental Action Network appealed the planned expansion by Seattle Pacific University of its Casey Conference Center to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. Since then, university officials have been defending their plans, saying historic buildings, Crockett Lake and the majority of the land would be preserved as is.

It turned out that their plan isn't quite good enough. On Wednesday, the hearings board invalidated an Island County rezoning that would have allowed expansion.

The board said SPU's plan for Camp Casey is urban growth in an area not approved for such growth. The rezone was sent back for county and SPU officials to come up with a plan that is compliant with the state Growth Management Act.

"I'm very pleased with the decision," said Marianne Edain of WEAN. "We hope we've gotten their attention and that they would like to discuss alternatives with us."

WEAN members have said they want to work with SPU officials to come up with a plan to accommodate planned expansion outside of the disputed wooded area.

Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell was disappointed with the hearing board's decision.

"They slammed the door shut it seemed like," McDowell said. "I think the lion's share of the people in the county think that SPU has done a good job managing Camp Casey."

He is concerned about the future of Camp Casey if SPU can't move forward with expansion plans. He said he wouldn't like to see the property broken up and sold for housing. SPU has said it needs to boost revenue for the self-supporting camp in order to keep it operating.

McDowell said that the county is still studying the hearings board decision and has not yet met with SPU to discuss the next step.

SPU wants to expand the conference center located near Fort Casey State Park to bring in a broader range of visitors and make the center more appealing to adults.

To reach that goal, SPU proposed adding six 8,000-square-foot buildings, an 8,000-square-foot chapel, 50 cabins and seminar space. To accommodate such an expansion, 240 parking spaces, a small sewage treatment plant and water facilities are needed.

SPU would have had to cut down several acres of trees to make room for the new buildings.

Because of the scope and intensity of SPU's plans, the hearings board considered the expansion urban growth in a rural area and not consistent with the GMA.

Sue Hizon, coordinator of Planning and Development for the Casey Conference Center, wouldn't comment on the decision. SPU officials are still going through the 80-page decision and she expects to be able to comment next week.

Despite repeated attempts, Tim Martin, a Langley-based attorney representing SPU, did not return phone calls for comment.

During a hearing before the board last month, Martin argued the historic military buildings, the bluff, the open spaces and most of the wooded areas would be preserved.

SPU came to the county late last year with a master plan needed to change the zoning of Camp Casey from a rural zone to a special review district.

A special review district establishes parameters meant to protect the character of the area. The Greenbank Farm and Au Sable Institute are other special review district in the county.

WEAN representatives were concerned about the negative effects of increased traffic, and people in the area and that clearcutting five acres of trees would damage the nearby wooded area by making it more susceptible to blowdown. Part of the forest on the SPU property is recognized by the state as a Heritage Forest site.

County officials have said environmental concerns related to the proposed expansion would be addressed at the permitting stage.

The hearings board found that using a phased environmental review won't allow for an evaluation of the cumulative environmental impacts of the project.

The board also pointed out that certain aspects of the expansion might be exempt from environmental review. It also stated that the county's decision to issue an environmental impact statement claiming that the new development would have no impact on the environment was "clearly erroneous."

The rezone is remanded back to the county to bring it into compliance with the Growth Management Act. The county has to submit a compliance report to the hearings board by the end of the year and another hearing has been scheduled for May 2004.

Western Washington Hearings Board member Holly Gadbaw suggested a possible solution in a concurring opinion. Her suggestion was to have the county adopt criteria for a master planned resort. She said in the opinion that such resorts allow for expansion in rural areas.

McDowell was quick to dismiss such an idea because of the public outcry against such a definition when the county developed its comprehensive plan in 1998. The concept of master planned resorts was deleted from the plan.

McDowell added that it would also be improper to develop such a designation solely for one organization.

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