Residents upset about plans to move iconic sign in Clinton

Clinton’s famous sign, created in 1991 across from the Clinton ferry dock: Residents are upset that the county plans to move it up the highway. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Clinton’s famous sign, created in 1991 across from the Clinton ferry dock: Residents are upset that the county plans to move it up the highway.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

They’re rallying in large numbers to keep the venerable welcome sign outside the Clinton Ferry Terminal right where it is. But it’s late in the game.

“There’s been an overwhelming response,” Teresa McCoy said on Monday of the petition she has circulated in downtown Clinton. “We already have more than 1,000 signatures.”

Petitions placed at the ferry terminal are filling up quickly with names. A sign at Shirley’s Kitchen at the ferry dock that usually carries the daily specials is now urging people to “Help save our Welcome to Whidbey Island sign.”

Owner Shirley Wilson said she has had petitions available for eight days, and has already collected more than 500 signatures, from residents and off-islanders alike.

“Everybody’s signing it,” Wilson said Tuesday. “People are outraged.”

“I’ll bet that sign as a tourist attraction has its picture taken more than anything else on the island,” she said. “But I’ve heard it’s a done deal.”

McCoy said she hopes to expand the petition drive to other South End communities. She’ll need to work fast. The sign is scheduled to be moved by the end of the month.

McCoy, of Clinton, and Wilson are part of a growing group of South Whidbey residents who are protesting plans to move the 18-year-old “Welcome to Whidbey Island” sign a couple of miles up the road.

Phones are ringing and e-mails are flying in an effort to stop the project until a compromise can be reached, McCoy said. She plans to present the petition to county commissioners before the end of the month.

Meanwhile, however, contracts have been awarded for the project, volunteers have been mustered and a new concrete base for the old sign has been poured at Campbell Road.

“I am sorry to throw a wrench into the works at this late date,” McCoy wrote in an e-mail to Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson. “I would have voiced my opposition earlier f I had known about the plans.”

The project has been in the works for 10 months, and has involved a number of local government officials, consultants and members of businesses and civic organizations and the public. Several public meetings were conducted.

“Almost everybody I talked with didn’t know anything about it,” McCoy said.

“They never asked me,” Shirley Wilson said.

The county plans to move the sign up Highway 525 to the other outskirts of downtown Clinton, at the highway’s intersection at Campbell Road.

The sign will be replaced outside the ferry terminal by a new “monument” reading “Whidbey Scenic Isle Way,” and below that, “Welcome to Clinton.”

Those who helped get the new sign approved have spent recent days trying to tamp down the controversy.

“I think it’s a little unfortunate at this juncture that this is coming up,” Jack Lynch, past president of the Clinton Progressive Association, said of the petition. Lynch was in on the original planning process.

“We’re going to have more identification for Clinton on the new sign, and at the same time the other sign will be more visible,” he said.

“I hope people will celebrate the fact that we’re getting more signage,” Price Johnson said. “I think everyone will be pleased when it’s all said and done.”

The steep slope surrounding the existing sign will be cleared and landscaped to discourage the blackberry vines that have tended through the years to grow over the sign.

Construction of the Clinton monument is scheduled to begin early next month, said Mike Morton, a county transportation planner who has been working on the concept of a designated scenic route for the island since 2004.

The project went into full swing in 2007 when the county received a $98,100 grant from the National Scenic Byways Program, Morton said.

That amount was increased by contributions totaling $27,500 from the county, the cities of Oak Harbor and Langley, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Port of South Whidbey.

The port district itself donated $7,000, and agreed to oversee a volunteer effort to move the current sign to the Campbell Road location.

The grant stipulated two components, Morton said.

The first was to design a Whidbey Scenic Isle Way logo and put up 13 “way-finding” signs at five- or six-mile intervals the length of highways 20 and 525.

The second was to design and build three “gateway monuments” to welcome visitors at the island’s entry points: Deception Pass, Keystone and Clinton.

After a long selection process involving as many as 40 suggested sites, Morton said, the best location for the Clinton monument was determined to be the site of the existing sign. The best new location for the old sign was determined to be at Campbell Road, in the Department of Transportation right-of-way.

“We found that drivers getting off the ferry are mostly interested in getting up the hill as fast as they can,” Lynch said. “The sign gets less attention there than it will at Campbell Road.”

McCoy said the existing sign gets plenty of attention; ferry-terminal workers report that a day rarely goes by that tourists aren’t posing for pictures in front of it, she said.

McCoy and her supporters suggest that the new monument be placed next to the existing sign, or that the monument itself move to Campbell Road.

Responded Lynch: “It seems the most appropriate thing to do is to have ‘Welcome to Clinton’ where you enter Clinton, not leave it.”

The “Welcome to Whidbey Island” sign was created in 1991 by a 20-person team that included Clinton artist Pat McVay and woodcarver Steve Backus, following a community fundraising effort led by the Clinton Chamber of Commerce, at the time headed by Rufus Rose.

“It was a true community effort at the time,” Backus said Tuesday. “Dozens and dozens of people were involved.

“Nobody’s going to get out of their cars on a busy highway to take a picture,” he said of the planned relocation. “This is a terrible idea.”

“I think this will kill community spirit,” Backus added. “People will say, ‘Well, why should we try?’”

Rose, who said he just recently heard about the county’s plans, agrees.

“I believe the sign should stay where it is,” Rose said Tuesday. “I can’t see any other place that would say welcome as well as right there. It’s art.”

The sign features a log cedar oval with carved eagles, porpoises, otters and other critters, and a ferry.

The sign is 10 feet by 20 feet and is coated with oil-based marine paint. The original plan was to place benches in front of it.

McVay’s colorful carved wood signs can be seen throughout South Whidbey, including at the entrance to South Whidbey Community Park on Maxwelton Road and the entrance to South Whidbey Sports Complex on Langley Road.

McVay also has been commissioned to produce a carved sign for Trustland Trails, and one for the community of Scatchet Head.

McVay said he restored the “Welcome To Whidbey Island” sign a couple of years ago, and that it should last another 20 years — if it stays where it is.

“I think it’s too fragile to move,” he said Monday.

Tuesday, McVay climbed a rope to the sign to show Morton, Lynch and Geoff Tapert, a Port of South Whidbey commissioner and structural engineer, how the back of the sign has decayed because of moisture.

McVay said he agrees with them that the sign might be more noticed and would be easier to maintain in the new location, but that it probably wouldn’t stand the move.

He also said the close proximity of fast-moving traffic and exposure to the elements would be a concern, along with the potential for vandalism because of the nearby bus stop.

“The petition is a great idea,” McVay added. “For a long time, I thought I was a Lone Ranger on this. I signed it myself.”

County commissioners say public officials followed the approval process for the project to the letter, including publication of meeting times and places, and that changes in the plan are unlikely at this point.

“This is not a failure of elected officials to respond to wishes, although I suppose someone’s wishes always go unmet whenever any government decision is made,” commission chairman John Dean wrote in an e-mail to petition supporters.

Price Johnson, who represents South Whidbey on the county board of commissioners, said the length of the process due to the gathering of the necessary permits, along with the overwhelming amount of competing media these days, probably contributed to public notifications that fell through the cracks.

She said that information about every meeting conducted by county officials is always available, and she urged interested citizens to put their names on the list to receive it.

“That way people can pick and choose,” she said.

Dean agreed.

“Rather than fight, let’s work on establishing new lines of communication,” he said in his e-mail. “It seems to me that would be much more productive at this point.”

Wilson, down at the Clinton ferry dock, said that despite the odds against it, she still hopes the “Welcome to Whidbey Island” sign will remain where it is.

“It’s pretty much what we are on this island. It has everything on it,” she said.

“It’s just being moved,” responds Lynch. “It’s not going away.”

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