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County delays port’s marina funding hopes

The Island County Board of Commissioners was forced to delay authorizing a financial request from the Port of South Whidbey last week.

“Apparently, the commissioners couldn’t make a decision until the Economic Development Council has weighed in with their views,” said Port Commissioner Geoff Tapert. “The code requires they do so.”

Late last year, the county’s Council of Governments recommended approval for rural development funds for a modest makeover of the marina after voters scuttled the full $8.2 million version.

The port is now planning to position its 400-foot breakwater with a connector dock to dry land, a project estimated to cost $1.2 million, half of which will be funded by the port.

The council’s director, Sharon Hart, said the application wasn’t received in their office in time for the November board meeting.

“There was a glitch, possibly caused by the switch in personnel on the commission,” Hart noted.

On Nov. 4, new commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola were elected to replace Phil Bakke and Mac McDowell. There has been a concomitant turnover of county personnel as a result during the last several weeks.

The total cost of the port’s request is $2.4 million. Since the county can’t fund more than 50 percent of that, the port is asking for $1.2 million.

The port assumed ownership and control of the marina from the city on

Jan. 1 and is working hard on getting up to speed.

At stake is the immediate future for passenger-ferry and small tour boat access to the new South Whidbey Marina in Langley. Harbormaster Rick Brewer, who once worked for the Victoria Clipper company, has arranged for one of the company’s tour boats to stop at the port on

Feb. 22, just in time for Langley’s Mystery Weekend.

An earlier application for funding was rejected by the council because it included too many details of the larger marina project, now put on hold while the port examines alternative funding options.

Port commissioners believe their chances for ultimate approval are good.

“The new commission members want to make sure they follow all the rules of the road, so it makes sense for them to put the matter on hold while the EDC processes our request,” Tapert said.

The Council of Governments is composed of elected officials from the county, the ports of South Whidbey and Coupeville and the cities of Langley, Coupeville and Oak Harbor.

In their recommendation to the county, the council found that the port met the criteria for rural county development funds and the money is available.

Although the agency has over $4 million in its coffers, it also has some serious obligations, including already-approved funding for sewers in Freeland and Oak Harbor, and the Wharf Street improvements in Langley.

This year, tax revenue of roughly $787,000 — based on .09 percent of sales taxes — will be added to the council’s rural economic development funds.

The money is designed to provide assistance for improvement to sewer systems, roads, telecommunications infrastructure and port facilities.

Tapert said that, with the 12-month permitting process, construction wouldn’t begin until the spring of 2010.

“If we get approval, by the time we need the money, it will be available,” he said.

Economic development is a basic goal of the port, along with recreation and protecting the environment.

Port commissioners have long argued that having several hundred visitors arriving daily on vessels like the Victoria Clipper on their way to the San Juans, would be an economic shot in the arm for beleaguered businesses in Langley.

Typically, marinas charge a dollar each time a passenger gets on and off a cruise boat, so the potential revenue stream for both port and South End merchants is significant. Expanding South Whidbey’s tourism and marina-related activities fits the port’s six-year comprehensive plan like a glove, officials said.

Tapert added that there are preliminary plans under way for a small passenger-only ferry to begin service from Camano Island to the Coupeville wharf next year.

“The idea of a water taxi serving the South End makes sense if we can find a private investor,” Tapert said.

Meanwhile, the port plans to upgrade the boat-launch ramp, Phil Simon Park, the restrooms, showers and parking area.

Commissioners have said relocating the park to the shore, adding a floating dock to the ramp while grading and paving the gravel surface will dramatically improve public access.

The next port meeting is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday,

Feb. 11 at the Freeland Library.

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