UPDATE | Hunting banned at Deer Lagoon

A total ban on hunting in Deer Lagoon near Bayview was adopted unanimously by Island County Commissioners at a special session Monday night in Freeland.

“This is a change we need to face as a community,” commission chairman John Dean told about 100 people at Freeland Hall.

“We’re not the island we were,” Dean said. “We’re talking about mixing a neighborhood with firearms.”

After about two hours of spirited testimony on both sides of the issue, the commissioners took about five minutes to approve the shooting ban.

Commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola also voted to adopt the ordinance.

“It’s really comes down to density,” Homola said. “We don’t live in 1937 Whidbey anymore. This in not a place to be hunting.”

Price Johnson said she looked long and hard to find a compromise, but concluded that a total ban was the only answer.

“There is a reasonable likelihood of jeopardy,” she said.

Many of those in favor of hunting accused the commissioners of having made up their minds before the hearing started.

“Why didn’t you just say that two hours ago,” one said as he walked out as the commissioners approved the ban.

Nearly 30 people spoke for or against a total ban, each greeted with cheers and applause from supporters. Testimony was about evenly divided between those who felt endangered by the shooting, and those who embraced the benefits and traditions of hunting.

Those in favor of the ban told of houses, pets, animals and themselves being hit by shot, and being accosted by rude hunters while walking in the area.

“When hunters are hunting, it precludes the use of the lagoon by the rest of us,” said Paulette Becker, who lives along the shore. “For four months of the year, we’re worried that a stray shot will hit us.”

“Today the wetlands are surrounded by residential properties,” added John McFarlane of Double Bluff. “Hunters, I’m sorry, but like a good cigar at the rod and gun club, your time has passed.”

Those in favor of hunting said their firearms-safety training precludes reckless shooting, and that duck hunting is a positive experience for families and in many cases puts food on the table.

“All these safety issues are hearsay,” said Richard Cavanaugh of Freeland, a hunter. “Nobody’s been hurt down there.”

“Give it a chance and leave it open,” added Ray Gabelein of Clinton. “Hunters will police themselves.”

Some hunting advocates warned that a ban on shooting might be met with a lawsuit, since federal funds and money from hunting licenses went into the purchase of the property by the county in 2004.

Commissioners had originally considered a partial shooting ban at the 379-acre lagoon, leaving an area in the middle for duck hunters.

But after testimony last month, and e-mails, letters and phone calls since from neighbors and others about dangers from hunters, commissioners drafted a second ordinance calling for a total ban.

They considered both ordinances Monday night. The partial ban — moved for approval by Price Johnson — died for lack of a second.

For years, duck hunters from throughout the county and beyond have used the lagoon for about four months of the year during the shooting season. It was the only area in the South End where duck hunting was permitted.

But an increasing population in the area, especially of full-time residents, brought about the clash between reality and tradition, so the ban was expected.

At the close of a public hearing in late September on shooting restrictions at Deer Lagoon — new rules that would have created a

230-yard no-shoot zone around the edge of the county’s property — commissioners Dean and Homola suggested an immediate moratorium on shooting.

The commissioners didn’t vote on the idea, however, after they were warned that a new hearing was needed because the ordinance under consideration at the time did not mention an outright ban.

Testimony at the earlier hearing was divided between residents who live near the lagoon and those who said they were worried about noise and safety, and hunters who wanted to preserve their prime, and only, area for hunting waterfowl on South Whidbey.

Many said they were afraid to walk on the property during the hunting season, but hunters said the safety issue was overblown by their critics. Some also said the county should have kept the land free of hunting after it was acquired, and pressed commissioners to make it a park.

Others said the idea to create a 25-acre, trapezoid-shaped donut hole in the middle of the property where hunters could shoot was unworkable because sheriff’s deputies would not be able to enforce the restrictions.

In the weeks since, commissioners have received dozens of letters from residents, with most asking for a shooting ban on the county’s 379-acre property, an area that has been designated a “Habitat of Local Importance” by the county and an “Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society. The lagoon is home to more than

170 kinds of birds, including 21 species of shorebirds and 31 species of waterfowl.

County commissioners have previously considered restricting shooting at Deer Lagoon. New regulations proposed in 2005 would have created a 50-yard buffer zone at the lagoon, and would have also shorted deer season by six weeks on county land.

The board of commissioners at the time, all Republicans, failed to reach agreement on the rules and hit an impasse. Three Democrats now make up the board.

Though residents have repeatedly stressed the impact on nearby neighborhoods and wildlife from gun noise, commissioners had narrow authority to limit shooting. Hunting is regulated by the state, and the county could only limit the discharge of firearms if it would jeopardize people, property or domestic animals.

The shooting ban is not the first on the South End. The county has previously restricted shooting on other public lands it owns — there is a 150-yard setback for shooting near non-motorized trails, and shooting is banned on Lone and Honeymoon lakes and within 100 yards of the shoreline. Shooting is also prohibited on Goss Lake.

Record writer Brian Kelly contributed to this report.

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