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Diking official attempts to take his dispute to the airwaves

John Shepard hopes to take his campaign against his fellow diking commissioners off the island and into the ether.

Shepard, the newest member of the Island County Diking District 1 three-member board of commissioners, has e-mailed three Seattle television stations urging an investigative report on the district.

“We’ve got to do something to get them to stop pumping the wetlands,” Shepard said Thursday, shortly after firing off e-mails to KING 5 News, KOMO 4 News and KCPQ 13 News.

In the e-mails, he repeated accusations that diking commissioners Ray Gabelein and Steve Arnold, longtime commissioners who also own property in the district, are operating in their own self-interest in their elected positions, a charge both have repeatedly denied.

The complaints revolve around a controversial pump purchased by the diking district, and assessments on property owners that will help pay for the new equipment.

“I believe there have been multiple violations of public rights that I can go into with you in greater detail if you are interested in doing a story,” Shepard’s e-mail reads.

“Basically, a small group of individuals are being forced to pay for a project they did not want, is of no significant benefit to them, and that contributes to the illegal draining of wetlands,” he wrote.

“It’s a free country,” Gabelein said when told of Shepard’s e-mails.

“Accusations are being thrown around that are totally unfounded,” he added. “We’re not doing anything different from what’s been done in the district since it was formed in 1914.”

Arnold, the commission chairman, couldn’t be reached for comment by press time Friday. But in an interview late last month, he said of Shepard and his supporters: “The accusations they make are frivolous. They need to get some actual documentation.”

Island County Diking District 1 is a junior taxing district with elected commissioners responsible for raising public revenue for the district’s operations.

During the current dispute, county commissioners have maintained that its up to the people in the district to resolve their own problems.

In the e-mails, Shepard reiterates complaints that have burbled in the district near Bayview since the commission, before Shepard joined this year, completed a $430,000 pump project in December.

Shepard and his supporters in the district have formed the group Citizens for the Support of the Useless Bay Community (CSUBC). Shepard said a petition with 120 signatures was presented to Island County Commissioners seeking redress.

CSUBC maintains that assessments for the project are inequitable, that water being pumped from the Useless Bay golf course may be toxic to the environment, that the new pump is draining too much water from the wetlands, endangering wildlife habitats, and that the pump wasn’t needed in the first place.

Gabelein said that despite the current dry weather, the water level in the wetlands on Thursday was higher than it was in July 2005, “before the new pump even existed.”

He said the pump is needed, especially during wet weather and storms, because of increased building and development in the areas surrounding the district that have created more runoff, and because the rising level of sand in Useless Bay continues to clog the outflow pipes in the old gravity-flow system.

Gabelein said if the water level in the wetlands were allowed to rise to 3.5 feet, as Shepard proposes, it would flood the main drainage ditch during the wet seasons and endanger septic systems and wells in the lower areas.

Gabelein said several county and state permitting agencies have signed off on the pump project, including Island County’s public works and planning departments, the state’s departments of Fisheries and Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“This thing has been scrutinized pretty darned closely,” he said. “They haven’t found anything wrong.”

And to critics’ charges that the new pump is running constantly, dropping the wetlands water level to a dangerous low, Gabelein said the pump’s counter shows that it has operated a total of 2½ hours since April 23.

As for the latest assessment, Gabelein said a little more than half is for the pump, and the rest for maintenance and operation of the district. He said the current rate of assessment is half what the last one was in 2001, although he acknowledges property values have risen.

Shepard, who owns a large new home at Sunlight Beach, has been frustrated in nearly every attempt to affect change in the district, being regularly outvoted 2-1 on the issues he introduces.

He said if expanded media coverage fails to shake things up, CSUBC may resort to legal action.

A CSUBC fundraising “jewelry party” open house is planned at a member’s home at Sunlight Beach on Saturday, July 18.

Members are being urged to bring items of gold and silver to sell to a Seattle broker to raise money for CSUBC activities.

Shepard said the party hasn’t officially been tied to a legal fund, “but I think everyone knows that’s probably the intent.”

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