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Residents seek removal of diking commissioners

A blue heron grabs lunch near Deer Lagoon. Some residents of Diking District 1 are worried about the consequences of draining water from the environmentally sensitive area. - David Welton / The Record
A blue heron grabs lunch near Deer Lagoon. Some residents of Diking District 1 are worried about the consequences of draining water from the environmentally sensitive area.
— image credit: David Welton / The Record

A flood of protest over recent actions by Diking District 1 commissioners may be more than even its new half-million-dollar pump can handle.

Alleging irregularities by the diking commissioners, more than 50 residents of the district signed a petition asking county commissioners to suspend all diking district actions until a new group of commissioners can be installed.

Diking district commissioners deny any misconduct, saying they only did what was needed to keep up with the drainage demands of an increased population in the area.

“Clearly there are irregularities ... that are against the public interest,” petitioners wrote in a letter to Island County Prosecuting Attorney Greg Banks.

“These irregularities ‘smell,’ and the district cannot be allowed to continue to function in this manner,” the letter said.

Officials of the diking district said they have done nothing wrong.

“We went through all regulatory permit agencies and got every required permit,” said Steve Arnold, one of the diking district commissioners. “There’s a lot of fabrication going on, bottom line.”

The other district commissioners are Ray Gabelein, a member of a prominent South End family and owner of a Langley bulldozing company, and Bob Kohlwes of Sunlight Beach.

County commissioners have scheduled a hearing on the matter for 10:20 a.m. Monday, Nov. 17, in the commissioners hearing room in the Island County Annex basement in Coupeville.

The district, surrounding Deer Lagoon on Useless Bay south of Freeland, includes the neighborhoods of Sunlight Beach, Olympic View and Sun Vista.

Petitioners say the job of the district is to maintain the dike spanning Deer Lagoon between Sunlight Beach and Useless Bay Golf and Country Club. They say that for decades adequate drainage has been accomplished by the gravity flow system under Sunlight Beach Road to the outflow in Useless Bay.

They also claim the diking commissioners, without sufficient notice to their constituents, have contracted to buy an unnecessary pump for more than $500,000, which residents of the district will have to pay for through a tax assessment.

The petitioners also say that the heaviest assessments would go to property owners on the waterfront, who would receive no benefit from water drainage on the back side of the wetlands. They also question the effect of the new pump on the environmentally sensitive area, and the motives of the commissioners in installing it.

In approving the project, commissioners said the pump is needed to protect Sunlight Beach properties from flooding.

Arnold, who has been a district commissioner for 14 years, said the increased runoff from inside the district and areas surrounding it has increased dramatically through the years, thanks to more building and the arrival of more people to the area.

“Everybody who builds a building, paves a driveway or resurfaces a highway creates water runoff that all drains into our district,” Arnold said.

He said the five-pipe drainage system built in the 1940s and ‘50s is unequal to the task today, given the increased runoff and the buildup of sand on Useless Bay beach that clogs, and in some cases buries, the outfall.

“You can just see what happens over the years,” Arnold said. “Pumping is our only option.”

Joel Shrut, a leader in the petition drive, said the district has already installed a small pump and has been pumping continually during a period of little or no heavy rain.

He said the new, larger pump, if it is installed this month as scheduled, will have the capacity to pump 6,000 gallons a minute, a rate that “would lower the

500 acres of wetlands in the area one foot in 19 days.”

Shrut, who has lived in the area since 2002, said residents are concerned about the environmental effect the pumping will have on the wetlands, and the impact of golf course maintenance chemicals being pumped into the lagoon and Useless Bay.

Shrut also said seasonal residents have noticed a “significant decrease” in the blue heron population, and the number of fish in the tide pools.

“What we want to do is just put the brakes on, then sort out what the environmental and biological impacts will be,” Shrut said Monday.

He said several well-attended community meetings already have been held on the issues, and that thorough research on the consequences by experts retained by the residents is underway.

“A lot of people are concerned about the environmental impact,” Shrut said.

Some residents have also implied that commissioners have been secretive about their actions, failing to post public notices, or posting them in obscure locations where they are easily missed.

They also say commissioners are lax in providing information about meeting times and what the board had done, and about the timing of terms of office, making it difficult for residents in the district to put forward opposition candidates.

Petitioners said in their letter that there are more than 500 parcels in the district, and “these voters are disenfranchised by the manner in which Diking District No. 1 commissioner positions have been filled.”

Arnold said that commissioners have followed the law regarding public notification, including the posting of signs and the publishing in newspapers of all pertinent legal notices, including notification of elections.

“We have a standing public notice,” Arnold said. “We have regular meetings once a month.”

“It’s unfortunate,” Arnold continued. “No one ever comes to our meetings unless they want something.”

Commissioners serve six-year terms, and the expiration of those terms is staggered, Arnold said.

Petitioners also raised a conspiratorial note, wondering if the fact that Gabelein and Kohlwes own property boarding the area being pumped is significant.

Petitioners said a by-product of increased pumping might well be to make more land in the area buildable, an obvious benefit to those who have access to it.

“There appears to be a pattern of engaging in activities that will benefit those on the commission, rather than the property owners who will be expected to pick up the tab,” petitioners said in their letter to the county prosecuting attorney.

“This seems to be a case of the ‘good ol’ boys’ conducting business as usual,” Shrut said. “Now they’re facing the wariness of the population. This is not going to go away.”

Arnold scoffed at the notion of a conspiracy. And he said that regardless of what happens with the county commissioners next week, the water situation isn’t going to go away, either.

“This district has been around since 1914, and it’s going to be draining after everybody’s gone,” he said. “The dike is going to be there, the drainage problems are going to be there.”

“Somebody is going to have to deal with it,” Arnold added, “unless they want their houses flooded.”

Roy Jacobson can be reached at 221-5300 or rjacobson@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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