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County won’t shut down diking district

COUPEVILLE — If anyone’s going to be the little Dutch boy of the children’s tale and put a finger in this dike, it’s not going to be Island County commissioners.

At least not yet.

The situation may be summed up best by one resident of Diking District 1, who called it “a neighborhood squabble that got way out of control.”

At a spirited hearing Monday before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 50, county commissioners voted 2-1 to deny a petition by disgruntled residents to suspend the operations of the diking district and dismiss its three commissioners.

County Commissioners Phil Bakke and Mac McDowell rejected a continuation of the hearing suggested by Commission Chairman John Dean to gather more information.

“The problem’s been a lack of communication,” Dean said.

He said when it comes to a junior taxing district, “we are loathe to step in and do their business. Our job is to act as a public forum to get the information out.”

All three commissioners agreed that it hadn’t been demonstrated at Monday’s hearing that the actions of the diking district have resulted in damage to the public interest or danger to residents of the area — the only criteria county commissioners say would permit them to grant the suspension.

But Dean said he’d prefer to provide “a comfort level” by waiting a couple of weeks, getting Commissioner-elect Helen Price Johnson in the loop and holding a public meeting in the neighborhood to gain more clarity.

“There’s so much angst out there,” Dean said. “We need to remain a player. I’d like to stop the lawyer talk, sit down as a community and try to figure this out.”

Price Johnson, who defeated Bakke in the election, will be sworn in later this month. She attended Monday’s hearing. Meanwhile, Angie Homola is expected to survive a recount in her narrow election lead over McDowell, and would replace him on the county commission in January.

“This is a diking district problem,” McDowell told fellow commissioners. “If we postpone it, it becomes a county problem.”

“The county is all involved in this, but it doesn’t want to take the responsibility,” responded attorney Elizabeth Derrig, who is representing the petitioners. “It’s taxation without representation.”

Derrig tried to withdraw the petition, saying she would resubmit it when the new board of county commissioners is seated.

A miffed McDowell said one person can’t withdraw an entire petition, and added: “It’s not up to her to tell us what we can and can’t do.”

Later in the hearing, McDowell said that even though the petition was denied this time, it could be resubmitted at a later date.

More than 50 residents of the diking district had signed the petition to the county commission alleging irregularities by the diking commissioners. The residents demanded the suspension of all diking district actions until a new group of diking commissioners could be installed.

Diking commissioners said they have done nothing wrong, only what was needed to keep up with the drainage demands of an increased population in the area.

The district, which spans 4,000 acres of watershed surrounding Deer Lagoon on Useless Bay south of Freeland, includes the neighborhoods of Sunlight Beach, Olympic View and Sun Vista and the Useless Bay Golf and Country Club.

The diking commissioners are Steve Arnold, a 14-year member of the panel; Ray Gabelein, a member of a prominent South End family and owner of a Langley bulldozing company; and Bob Kohlwes of Sunlight Beach.

“This is not going to go away,” Derrig promised after the hearing Monday.

She stopped short of announcing an intention to sue on behalf of her clients, but hinted that may come to pass.

“We’re strongly considering it. They’ve kind of forced our hand,” Derrig said.

But Derrig also endorsed the idea of additional public meetings.

“We want to work together,” she said.

Residents claim the diking commissioners, without sufficient notification, contracted to buy an unnecessary pump for more than $500,000, which residents who live in the “benefit” area of the district will have to pay for through a tax assessment for five years.

Petitioners said the assessments are inequitable, and 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 are concerned about the effect of the new pump on the environmentally sensitive area, and the motives of the commissioners in installing it.

“It smells, it’s brown,” Derrig said of the water currently being pumped. She said the residents have asked the state Department of Ecology to test the water.

“It may not be healthy for people to have this dumped in their back yards,” Derrig said. “You can breathe the chemicals if you go down there.”

Chuck Edwards, chairman of the greens committee at the Useless Bay Golf and Country Club, said the current pump owned by the course has been pumping the same water from the golf course since 1975.

Edwards said the chemicals used by the golf course have been determined to be safe by environmental agencies.

“We’re not poisoning anyone,” he said.

He also said the golf course will be paying 11 percent of the assessment for the new pump, besides having contributed $10,000 to its purchase.

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

Petitioners said the job of the district set out in 1914 is to maintain the dike spanning Deer Lagoon between Sunlight Beach and the golf course. They also note that for decades adequate drainage has been accomplished by the gravity flow system under Sunlight Beach Road to the outflow in Useless Bay.

Diking commissioners, however, said runoff from inside the district and areas surrounding it has increased dramatically through the years, thanks to more building and the arrival of more full-time residents to the area.

Residents have also raised concerns about other potential environmental impacts, including a decrease in the blue heron population of the area, and fewer numbers of fish in the tide pools.

They have also complained that commissioners have been secretive and have not adequately given notice for their meetings.

Gabelein, who has lived in the area for 52 years, spoke on behalf of his fellow diking commissioners at Monday’s hearing.

He said the present drainage control, which involves a gravity flow system and the smaller pump owned by the golf course, has become inadequate.

“Our problem is more water,” he said. “Water can’t get out fast, and more water is coming in.”

“The day you build a dike, you need drainage, otherwise you have a lake on the freshwater side of the dike,” Gabelein said. “Water doesn’t know where the property lines are.”

As for the water, “it’s always smelled that way,” Gabelein said. “The odor problem is in Deer Lagoon, not from our pipes.”

He flatly denied that diking commissioners, including himself, who own property in the district were acting in their own self-interest.

But he agreed commissioners need to do a better job of communicating.

“We don’t own a computer or a printer,” he said. “We need to catch up to the times.”

Diking commissioners say they have followed the law regarding public notification, including the posting of signs and the publishing of all pertinent legal notices, including notification of elections.

Sharon Vanderslice, a Sunlight Beach Road resident for the past 11 years, said that in all that time she has never received notices of diking district elections or meetings.

“I had no knowledge of what the diking district was doing,” she said. “I don’t read the little legal notices in the newspapers. That’s not an efficient way to let people know.”

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