UPDATE | County postpones decision on shooting rules

FREELAND — Island County commissioners decided not to pull the trigger on adopting new rules for hunters at Deer Lagoon.

But the issue isn’t dead. Commissioners postponed a decision Monday night on creating a 230-yard no-shoot zone around Deer Lagoon, but will re-examine the issue after allowing an extra week of public comment.

The postponement came after a public hearing in Freeland Hall that stretched for more than two hours. It was filled with testimony from residents who live in neighborhoods near the lagoon, and outdoorsmen wanting to preserve their access to the only public waterfowl hunting area on the South End.

The commissioners unanimously approved the delay. Two commissioners — Angie Homola of North Whidbey and John Dean of Camano Island — initially supported a moratorium on hunting at Deer Lagoon.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the county lacked authority for such a move, however, but agreed to extend the comment period. County officials said keeping the comment period open would give time for an opinion from the prosecutor’s office on a ban.

The county has proposed rules that would ban the discharge of firearms 230 yards from the shore of the county’s 379 acres at Deer Lagoon, a popular destination for waterfowl hunters. Violations of the regulations would be a criminal misdemeanor.

The hearing packed Freeland Hall. Some people joked about whether anyone would come armed. The crowd looked about 120 deep, and county workers brought in extra chairs while commissioners delayed the start of the meeting so more people could get inside.

The crowd was respectful, and there were no audience interruptions of those speaking. The testimony by speakers wasn’t marked by loud applause from the two camps — hunters asking for access to the lagoon and nearby residents worried about safety and gun noise — until nearly a dozen people had already spoken.

Dean set the stage early on, issuing a two-minute time limit for speakers and a plea for civility before the hearing began.

“This is not about anger,” he said. “The loudest and the meanest does not win.”

The county is limited in its legal authority to restrict the use of firearms.

Generally, firearms are regulated by the state, said County Engineer Bill Oakes, including rules on hunting. To approve restrictions, the county has narrow authority, but only when it finds the discharge of firearms jeopardizes people, property or domestic animals.

The proposal to create a 230-yard no-shoot zone around Deer Lagoon is based on the county’s assessment of the range of standard birdshot. It would leave all of the county’s 379 acres off-limits to hunting except a donut-hole area about 25 acres in size in the center of Deer Lagoon. A system of buoys would be used to mark the area where people could shoot.

Both sides hate it

Neither hunters nor residents were satisfied with the proposed rules.

Many who testified said they would not be easy to enforce, and said the land should be used as a park, as was intended when the county first acquired the property.

Many complained of the noise, though the county can’t restrict gun use on such grounds. Several said it sounded like they lived at the edge of a war zone; another wondered why children should have to wake up to the sound of gunfire.

Paulette Becker, who lives near Deer Lagoon, is a night nurse. She said she couldn’t sleep with the noise.

“I have nothing against hunting. But this is not the place to do it anymore,” Becker said.

Earl Lawsen, the president of the nine-member board of Useless Bay Golf & Country Club, said the board had voted to oppose the ordinance. He said the regulations were not enforceable, and that the land was obtained to be used as a park.

Bill Thieme, also a nearby resident, asked the county to ban hunting on the property.

“Show some backbone and do what’s right,” Theme said.

But there were those who said the safety issue had been overblown.

Rod Mourant of Freeland said he regularly jogs along Double Bluff Road, and has never been subject to a shower of shot.

Roadside mowers leave a bigger mess and are noisier, he added.

Bob Maschmedt said he retired on Whidbey so he could fish and hunt here.

He questioned what some people meant by making Deer Lagoon a park.

“That isn’t for teeter-totters and swings down there,” he said.

“This isn’t a safety issue, it’s an issue about noise,” Maschmedt added.

Hunting should be allowed to continue, he said. “This isn’t Mercer Island or Bainbridge Island.”

Ray Gabelein said he supported keeping the area open, and creating a buffer zone along the shoreline.

The county shouldn’t base its restrictions on the few hunters who have trespassed or not followed rules in the past, he added.

“We don’t close the county roads just because we have a few bad drivers,” Gabelein said.

Gabelein said he, too, lives nearby. But he wakes up in the morning not to the sound of gunfire, but the lawnmowers used on the golf course at Useless Bay, and the cannon-type discharges used to scare birds off the course.

Board chastised

Several speakers chastised the earlier board of commissioners for not making a decision on the issue when it was last considered in 2005. But the current board also found the decision difficult to make.

“I don’t think there’s any winners or losers in this,” Dean said.

He said he was concerned the ordinance was unenforceable, and it also didn’t solve the problem of a sense of safety for those living nearby.

“That’s one of my biggest concerns,” he said.

“The problem is finding a legal way to do this,” Dean said. He said he wasn’t sure limiting hunting to 25 acres “would accomplish much.”

Dean said he also supported a moratorium, so more time could be spent answering questions that had come up “and really put the science to this.”

Price Johnson said she thought the property would become a park when it was acquired years ago.

“Designating it a park really has no impact on whether or not there is hunting,” she added. “That’s a separate issue.”

She said she had reviewed documents related to the property, and they mention its use as land for “passive recreation” activities.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife, however, defines hunting as passive recreation, Price Johnson added.

“That was something that was new information to me,” she said.

“Unfortunately, I feel a little bit like I’m trying to put toothpaste back in a tube,” she added, because there was no explicit prohibition on hunting when the county accepted the land.

The ordinance was the best one she has come up with, and commissioners need to do something to address the issue, Price Johnson said, because the county had not in the past.

“I don’t sit home at night thinking of ways to get my neighbors to be mad at me,” she said. “I was pretty sure that this ordinance was not going to be real popular with a whole lot of people on both sides. But it’s the best I’ve been able to come up with.”

Price Johnson said she didn’t think the county had the legal authority to instigate a hunting moratorium on the property.

Ban suggested

Homola said she also thought the ordinance would be difficult for the sheriff’s office to enforce.

“Houses have really moved in. And people have really moved in,” Homola said, echoing the comments of an earlier speaker. “And we can’t look back at the past, we can only look to the future. And we have to think about our safety.”

“And I can’t be convinced that putting some buoys in the lake, and trying to define a trapezoidal shape, is going to protect the safety of people.”

“I just don’t think that’s a viable solution,” she said.

To hunters, Homola said: “We can’t be sure that everybody’s going to comply. We just don’t know that everybody is going to be a good apple.”

Homola recommended a one-week extension to the public comment period, and a moratorium until commissioners make a final decision.

Homola made a motion for a moratorium, but it was not voted on after commissioners decided it was not ripe for a vote. A different hearing was needed for that, Price Johnson said.

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