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Options include expanding parks district northward

Little Leaguer Will Simms perfects his bunting style Monday during a drill session at South Whidbey’s Community Park. Responding to the current budget crisis, parks supporters on Whidbey plan to explore the possibilities of creating a county-wide park district, or expanding the South End parks district boundaries north to Coupeville, at a meeting in Oak Harbor April 23. - Jeff VanDerford
Little Leaguer Will Simms perfects his bunting style Monday during a drill session at South Whidbey’s Community Park. Responding to the current budget crisis, parks supporters on Whidbey plan to explore the possibilities of creating a county-wide park district, or expanding the South End parks district boundaries north to Coupeville, at a meeting in Oak Harbor April 23.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford

No question, a park is a beautiful thing. But here on South Whidbey, county-wide and throughout the state, the public park system is at risk.

Whether or not Island County decides to cut loose from its obligation to maintain the public parks system due to dire budget restrictions, the South End’s parks district wants to be involved.

The director of the parks district, Terri Arnold, sent an e-mail recently encouraging people to attend a meeting this month in Oak Harbor designed to examine the idea of forming a Central Whidbey park district.

Among the options Arnold proposed was expanding South Whidbey’s current boundaries to include Central Whidbey.

This was news to Park Commissioner Jim Porter.

“We haven’t discussed that idea at any of our meetings,” Porter said. “My impression was this was a fact-finding mission. If the folks in Coupeville want to set one up, they should do their own thing. That’s what we did.”

Indeed, local park officials are encouraging Arnold to start the debate about parks. But they also say they are happy with the set-up that already exists on the South End.

Porter said he supports the idea of healthy, ongoing discussions about the future of parks in the county and that open, public meetings are a productive method of figuring out the best approach to budget cutbacks.

Parks commission chairperson Linda Kast said that the district absolutely has no plans to expand its boundaries.

“We will continue to focus on taking care of what we have,” she said. “But I think it’s fabulous that Terri is representing us, as these meetings take place because of her expertise and ability to give the board input on a subject of concern to us all.”

Arnold, as a member of the park organizing committee, proposed four options:

• Forming a Central Whidbey Parks & Recreation District. The boundaries would coincide with the Coupeville School District.

• The second option is formation of a Camano Island park district.

• The third option envisions expanding the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District boundaries to include Central Whidbey.

• The fourth plan would be to divide the central area with North Whidbey and meet in the middle.

She added that recipients of her e-mail, for a $15 membership fee, could join the nascent “Friends of Whidbey Island Parks” group designed to move the parks issue forward to the voters.

“The question here is this: Is there anything we can do to keep parks from closing on the island?” asked Park Commissioner Matt Simms.

“The state and county may or may not have enough money to run the park system. This discussion could go down many different paths and we need to examine how it could be dealt with if properties became available,” Simms said.

Simms added that the meeting, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 23 in Oak Harbor, is simply a chance to brainstorm all the options.

“We need to get as many players to the table as possible,” he said.

The county’s 2009 park budget calls for $324,540 to cover maintenance and operations, with another $250,000 for capital projects.

Whether those figures survive the cutting process under way now in county offices is unknown. How changes caused by budget cuts would affect county-owned parks on the South End is anyone’s guess at this point.

Currently, the county splits ownership of three properties on the South End with the Port of South Whidbey — Freeland Park, Maxwelton Beach and the Mutiny Bay boat launch ramp. If the county asked the port to assume a bigger role, there would be a few road blocks.

“We couldn’t afford to take over their responsibilities, not without more money,” said Port Commissioner Lynae Slinden. “That would require a levy lift and I’m not sure voters would take kindly to that idea.”

But Slinden added that there appears to be a high level of interest by the public in the future of the parks on Whidbey.

“The last meeting held by the steering committee was well-attended,” she said. “Folks on this island don’t want to lose their parks.”

The next South Whidbey Parks & Recreation meeting is 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 15 at the South Whidbey Community Health Services building, 5475 Maxwelton Road in Langley.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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