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County, diking district squabble over new permitting costs

It’s all yours. No, it’s all yours.

Like two tightwads jockeying to avoid a dinner check, Island County and Diking District 1 are at odds over who should pay for another permit for the diking district’s controversial pump project at Useless Bay.

“We believe we’ve met all our contractual obligations,” said Bill Oakes, county public works director, refusing to pick up the tab. “Our position is we did that years ago.”

“It would behoove the county to be on our side on this,” said Steve Arnold, diking district commission chairman, pointing to the district’s threadbare wallet. “Eventually, the whole thing could fall back on the county, if the district can’t afford to do this thing.”

Early last month, the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle revoked the original permit and said that diking officials would need to apply for an appropriate one, after the fact.

Oakes said this past week that the county spent about $140,000 on engineering and environmental studies to apply for and obtain the original permit, granted in 2007.

The new pump was installed on Christmas Eve, 2008, despite a heated protest — and a lawsuit — by some residents of the district who say assessments for the pump are unfairly distributed, that the pump isn’t needed and that its operation is harming the Deer Lagoon wetlands.

Oakes said that the cost of satisfying the new Corps requirements, plus additional studies that may be required by the state Department of Ecology, would be “significant.”

“My guess is you’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.

The county handled the original permit application as spelled out in a three-way contract with the diking district and the Useless Bay Golf & Country Club.

When the Corps revoked the permit, the diking district wrote a letter to the county saying it was the county’s responsibility under the contract to pay for a new one.

Oakes wrote back saying that, when it comes to the pump, the county had done all it was going to do financially.

Diking commissioners voted this past week to have the district’s attorney write another letter to the county, repeating the district’s stance.

“This is obviously going to be expensive,” Arnold said of the new permit requirements. “We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to pay for all this stuff.”

He said the district has received one 30-day extension on submitting the requested information to the Corps, and may ask for an additional break.

Ironically, Arnold said, he agrees with Oakes that the project is complete, “but unfortunately, we’ve gone down a different path.”

“The county should be on our side and convince the Corps to keep the existing permit in place,” Arnold said.

Meanwhile, the pump can keep pumping until the permit issue is settled, the Corps said.

Arnold said the federal agency admitted it had issued the wrong kind of permit, apparently based on what it now considers to be incomplete information.

The Corps said subsequent data, much of it provided by opponents of the project, may indicate that the installation of a 6,000-gallons-per-minute pump is not simply maintenance, but instead increases pumping capacity, which requires a different kind of permit.

The new project is designed to pump into Useless Bay any excess stormwater that could flood property in the district. Opponents say all it has done so far is to endanger the wetlands, while seasonal flooding on the east end of Sunlight Beach continues as it always has.

Diking commissioners Arnold and Ray Gabelein say the original Corps permit is the correct one, because the pump is designed to maintain “historic” water levels in the wetlands.

The third commissioner, a harsh critic of the pump project even before he was appointed by county commissioners to the diking board, continues to maintain that too much water is being pumped from the wetlands.

Shepard voted against sending another letter to the county, but admitted this week that, on reflection, the county should be responsible for paying additional permitting costs.

“In retrospect, I wish I’d voted for it,” Shepard said of the latest letter.

If he had, it would have been a rare occurrence. Shepard has voted against Arnold and Gabelein on nearly every issue.

Shepard said he has no regrets about any additional expenses that have been incurred as a result of his pot-stirring over the pump.

“It should have been done correctly from the beginning,” he said. “Now, people are having to bear the consequences of something that was done wrong.”

Meanwhile, diking officials continue to look for a way to deal with the permit issue.

Last month, Arnold and Gabelein voted to hire, for $350 per hour, a specialist attorney from Seattle to deal with the Corps and Ecology on behalf of the district.

Shepard voted no, saying it would be another unnecessary expense.

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