Dearborn’s days with Island County appear numbered

Keith Dearborn’s tumultuous time with Island County is coming to an end.

The Seattle lawyer’s contract with the county expires at the end of December, and county officials said both Dearborn and the county are opposed to a new contract that would keep the controversial attorney on the county payroll.

For nearly 25 years, Dearborn has wielded a heavy hand on land-use issues in Island County. Much of that time has been spent guiding the county on its zoning laws, its long-range growth management planning and the crafting of development regulations and rules that govern building on land with environmentally sensitive features such as streams and wetlands.

For almost the same amount of time, Dearborn has been a lightning rod by activist groups such as the Whidbey Environmental Action Network and others that view the attorney as beholden to development interests. The spats between Dearborn and WEAN have often been publicly personal and, like the criticism over the millions of dollars he has earned while working for Island County, have generated countless headlines in local newspapers.

That era appears to be ending.

County Commissioner John Dean said both the county and Dearborn have mutually agreed to part ways before the start of the new year.

“We’re definitely going in a different direction in 2009,” Dean said.

Dean said he talked with Dearborn last month. It was after the election where two other Democrats for county commissioner — Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola — had made a campaign issue of severing ties with Dearborn. Both were elected, and come January, Democrats will control the three-member board.

“He pretty much knew, just listening to the campaign, that ... the new board would not be interested in signing a new contract,” Dean recalled.

Instead, Dearborn recently sent Dean a letter saying he was not interested in renewing his contract.

“He saw the writing on the wall,” Dean said. “He took the initiative himself to say he wanted to retire.”

This past year, Dearborn has been helping the county update its critical areas ordinance, which dictates how properties with environmentally sensitive features such as streams, steep slopes or wetlands can be developed. He has also been defending the county against legal challenges filed by WEAN over regulations the county adopted that cover wetlands and farming. That work has been part of the county’s effort to update its critical areas ordinance, and Dearborn has been paid more than $311,000 on the update through mid-October.

Dean said the board has not met formally to discuss Dearborn’s future with the county.

“There was no need to; we knew the new board in 2009 would not be interested,” Dean said.

Dearborn’s work will now be taken over by attorney Dan Mitchell of the Island County prosecutor’s office.

Dearborn has begun to transfer files to the county, and he was scheduled to meet with Mitchell for a briefing Monday.

Dearborn’s departure is a loss, added Dean, who voted for the last contract extension for the attorney.

“Keith is a talented land-use planner, not just an attorney,” Dean said.

“There is some of that expertise that we will lose. But I think Dan [Mitchell] is up for the challenge.”

Jeff Tate, director of the county planning department, said Dearborn has provided specialized legal assistance to the county when it was greatly needed. But the county is also looking to control costs in tight budget times.

“We’re trying to cut costs,” he said. “In my opinion, he’s very much worth it, but it is an additional cost.”

Even so, Tate said he has asked commissioners to keep Dearborn on board. It would be expensive for the county to keep a land-use legal expert such as Dearborn on board when major land-use projects, such as the update of the county’s critical areas ordinance, occurs only once every seven years. In those instances, he said, it makes sense to hire an outside attorney.

The county has gotten good value out of its contract for services with Dearborn, he said.

“To me, I think we get a lot of bang for the buck with him,” Tate said.

“We’re losing someone who has experience dating back to 1983. That kind of institutional knowledge is going to be tough to replace. He knows the history better than any single person in the county. It will be challenging to fill in that void, no matter what we do.”

“I’m going to be disappointed to see him go, personally,” Tate added. “At the same time, I don’t think there’s only one answer on how we need to get through these issues.”

A different approach on land-use issues is certain, given the new board of commissioners that will be seated in January. During the campaign, both Price Johnson and Homola blasted the county’s current approach to a multitude of land-use issues as misguided.

Dean said the new make-up of the board of commissioners will likely result in more consideration given to environmental issues. The input of WEAN and other such groups will be considered early on, he said.

“The goal would be to have fewer appeals and fewer court cases and lawsuits,” Dean said.

That doesn’t mean the pendulum on the county’s land-use polices will now swing too far to the left.

“I don’t see it as going from one extreme to the other,” Dean said.

“I see more, perhaps, open discussion and more effort to get everybody on board.

“I see more open discussions. My goal will certainly not be to have it go from one extreme to the other.”

Dean said that beyond the departure of Dearborn, the most immediate shift in land-use philosophy will likely be seen on the county’s planning commission. The incoming commissioners have already been talking about new appointments to that advisory body, he said.

“We may have more of a slightly environmental point of view on that planning commission, or at least we’ll have some strong voices on it,” Dean said.

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