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Whidbey commissioner candidates harp on growth
Don’t stop if you’ve heard this one before: Growth is shaping up to be a big issue in both races for county commissioner this year.
Both Democrats campaigning for commissioner are blasting their Republican opponents over the incumbents’ handling of growth planning.
Angie Homola, the Democratic candidate challenging incumbent Republican Mac McDowell for the District 2 position, has faulted the “poor planning policies of current leadership,” while Helen Price Johnson, the Democratic candidate in the District 1 race, is criticizing the county for the millions of dollars it has spent to comply with state growth management laws.
Johnson said the county’s current approach is threatening the quality of life in Island County. Some citizens are frustrated with county commissioners, she said.
“Rather than trying to be proactive and compliant with the state law, it seemed to many of us that they’ve been dragging their feet on full compliance. And it has cost us money,” Price Johnson said.
“I would rather see that money invested toward preserving what it is we have and being proactive in that effort,” she said.
If the growth debate has a familiar ring, it’s because the issue of growth has taken center stage in past elections, including the 2006 race where Democrat John Dean was elected commissioner.
The tone of this year’s race, however, is becoming more reminiscent of the 2004 battle for District 1 commissioner between incumbent Republican Mike
Shelton and Democrat Dean Enell. In that contest, Shelton faced repeated criticism over the amount of money the county had paid outside consultants to help with its growth-planning efforts.
That missive is being fired again in 2008.
In her candidate’s statement in the soon-to-be-published county voter’s guide, Price Johnson declares: “While our community’s natural treasures suffer from growth and sprawl, our county has spent millions of dollars and countless hours fighting the Growth Management Act.”
“I think it’s a very big issue for voters,” Price Johnson said this week.
“People are concerned that we are able to preserve our quality of life. That’s going to be a balancing of our environmental concerns with our economic development,” she said.
Island County officials, though, said the work done over the past three years on development issues surpasses any effort the county has undertaken in the past. The county has revamped its rules for farming on lands with “critical areas,” lands with wetlands, steep slopes or other environmentally sensitive features. It’s also created an extensive water-quality monitoring program, and new rules that restrict development near wetlands went into effect on Tuesday. Officials also stress it’s been done with a public outreach effort unlike any ever seen before in Island County.
County Commissioner Phil Bakke, who is running to retain his seat against Price Johnson, fellow Republican Reece Rose and no-party candidate Curt Gordon, said the charge that county commissioners were fighting Olympia over the state’s Growth Management Act was not only old, but off.
Bakke, who led the county’s planning department before becoming commissioner when Shelton resigned last year, said when he joined the planning department the county was out of compliance with the Growth Management Act. The county wasn’t fighting the state, but trying to get its GMA house in order.
The county was slow to get started, but it was one of the first counties to finish adopting its new growth management rules and comprehensive plan, he said. That was in 1998.
“We went from being the slowest to adopt to being the fastest. Skagit County, to this day, is still having appeals over its implementing regulations for the comp plan they adopted 15 years ago,” he said.
“We are done. We adopted it, we are implementing it, and we are improving on it every year.”
“Her argument is like a
13-year-old argument,” Bakke said of Price Johnson. “We need to get with the times here.”
Costs add up
Jeff Tate, director of Island County Planning and Community Development, said the county has spent approximately $1.1 million since mid-2005 to update its development rules that cover “critical areas.”
Roughly $504,000 has been spent on consultants.
Staff costs in the planning department now total approximately $450,000, and the figure includes part of the salaries of the nine county workers who have worked on the project over the past three years.
Another $175,000 of the total has been spent on countywide mailers, creating wetland identification guides, computer software and other gear.
Part of the $1 million spent so far has been used to defend the county’s new farming rules, currently the subject of a court battle in Thurston County Superior Court after the Whidbey Environmental Action Network challenged the regulations, saying they didn’t go far enough in protecting sensitive areas.
Tate said the county spent a lot early in the process to make sure more money won’t be needed to defend the new regulations later. And while the county has completed its farming regulations and wetlands rules, it still needs to wrap up work on its fish and wildlife regulations.
The county has spent a lot on consultants because the new rules must meet the test of “best available science,” and the county has not skimped on hiring the best experts available. Having the new rules reviewed costs money now, but may save it later, Tate said.
“It really prevents having to spend a lot more money later on if you’re in a court setting,” he said.
“We don’t know how many levels of appeal WEAN or someone else will push the county through. But it definitely makes our job less expensive if we’ve crossed our Ts and dotted our Is.”
A valid issue
Bakke said the amount of money spent by the county on regulating growth is a valid political issue.
“I suspect there are some that believe we should have done nothing and kept our 1984 wetlands protection ordinance in place and not abide by the state law to update the GMA plan. I’m not about to break the law,” Bakke said.
Bakke recalled how the county hired internationally-known experts to write and review its rules for developing near wetlands, a group of scientists that include Paul Adamus, a wetland scientist from Oregon State University.
“What we got for a million dollars, I think, is remarkable when you look at the talent,” Bakke added.
“We had a private peer review group that included three of the Puget Sound’s best scientists,” Bakke said. “The latest, best science available has been employed in these regulations. We put together a program that the state Department of Ecology wants to be a model. That doesn’t happen for free,” he said.
“Had we not done it this way,
I think we would have loads of critics asking why we didn’t take this more seriously.”
The primary election is 45 days away. Price Johnson, who owns and operates Price/Johnson Construction with her husband Dave, said she’ll continue to talk about growth during this year’s campaign.
“We need to do a better job of creating growth areas where density can happen and where infrastructure exists to accommodate the growth. Or we will lose.
“Holmes Harbor is already closed,” Price Johnson said. “I’m worried we might lose other beaches if we don’t change our direction.”