Commissioners deny grant, calling Coupeville anti-Navy

Firing a shot across the bow of any communities that decide to voice jet noise concerns, two Island County commissioners last week denied Coupeville economic development grant funds on the basis that the town is “hostile” toward the Navy.

Commissioners Rick Hannold and Jill Johnson, whose districts are in North Whidbey, said they took offense to a series of actions by the Town of Coupeville and Central Whidbey citizens in recent months.

The last straw, they said, was a Feb. 3 workshop in which council members spoke bluntly about their concerns with the Navy’s plans to increase the number of EA-18G Growlers that conduct touch-and-go landings at the Outlying Field outside of town.

“It’s a poor use of tax dollars to support a town that is hostile toward the economic driver of the county,” Hannold said, adding that the funding for the grant comes from sales taxes and is significantly bolstered by the presence of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor.

Johnson doesn’t deny that her decision was political, nor that it will increase the acrimony between Oak Harbor and Coupeville, but she blames Coupeville for starting it.

“When you punch someone in the face,” she said, “I don’t think you should be offended when you are punched back.”

The commissioner’s comments and rejection has received strong condemnation from Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, whose district covers South and Central Whidbey, as well as other Whidbey elected officials.

Price Johnson said local economic development funds “shouldn’t be used as a tool to punish people who may have a different perspective on a federal issue ” and that “this was a decision that never should have happened.” Coupeville’s and Langley’s mayors have also rejected the decision, with the former calling it shocking and the latter describing it as “chilling” to communities with opposing views.

Growing divide

Convergence of two Navy-related issues late last year precipitated the recent focus on the Navy and its impact on surrounding communities.

First, the Navy released a draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, on plans to add 35 or 36 Growlers stationed at NAS Whidbey. That would translate to a 47 percent increase in operation, including aircraft carrier landing practice at Outlying Field Coupeville.

Two citizen groups in Coupeville raised concerns about the increase in jet noise. One, Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, sued the Navy to require an EIS and publicly protested Growler noise.

A new group, Coupeville Community Allies, stated it isn’t anti-Navy and is focused on educating the community about the draft EIS.

Both groups — as well as the Navy — encouraged citizens to submit comments about the EIS to the Navy during the ongoing comment period. The town also hired its own professionals to evaluate the draft EIS and prepare comments. The council discussed the draft comments last week.

Some council members expressed concerns about how an increase in noise will impact the way of life in the rural landscape, as well as the town’s tourism and agrarian economy.

A draft letter states that a five- or six-fold increase in jet operations “is inconsistent and not tolerable to everything we have worked for in Coupeville and Central Whidbey.”

In a separate issue, the Navy started testing drinking water wells near OLF Coupeville and the Ault Field base for a potentially harmful chemical that’s found in firefighting foam. The town conducted independent testing of wells that are near OLF Coupeville.

One of the chemicals was detected but at levels well below the lifetime health advisory level set by the EPA.

Coupeville Mayor Molly Hughes said she believes it would be irresponsible not do independent testing. Hannold disagreed, saying the town could have just trusted the Navy’s results.

“They apparently don’t need the money,” he said of town officials. “They had money to do their own EIS, their own water tests and to double the pay of the mayor.”

Can they do that?

Hughes said she was shocked by the action.

“I feel it’s inappropriate to mix their personal feelings about one subject with a funding decision in a completely different matter,” she said, adding that she may look into taking legal action.

It’s inaccurate to label an entire community as “anti-Navy” just because some citizens and leaders asked questions and expressed concerns, Hughes said, noting that the two commissioners never met with her or council members to discuss the issue.

Coupeville’s grant application is for a “community green,” a plan for improvements to a large 3.9-acre open space in the middle of town. The plan includes the addition of a public bathroom, lighting, increased parking and other improvements.

The town applied for a $600,000 grant from the rural county economic development funds. Under the program, the state credits the county back 0.09 percent in state sales tax. The money’s purpose is to help finance public facilities or projects that bolster economic development.

The funds are administered by the county commissioners.

While some, including Hughes, have questioned the legality of arbitrary allotment — approving or denying applicants based on factors other than project or program criteria — it appears state law is on the commissioners’ side. RCW 82.14.370 requires counties to consult with cities, towns and port districts before decisions are made, and provide a list to state regulators showing that the “county has used the funds for those projects consistent with the goals of chapter 130.” But how the money is doled out is left to the discretion of the board.

County code is modeled off the RCW.

The clearest guidelines are on the application form itself; the second page outlines evaluation criteria in several questions. None mention support for the Navy.

Currently, project applications are reviewed by the Island County Economic Development Council and the Island County Council of Governments. The latter forwards its recommendations to the county commissioners for final approval.

The community green project passed muster with both the earlier review bodies and, according to Hughes, received nothing but positive comments.

Hannold and Johnson put the kibosh on the town’s application last week during the commissioners’ regularly scheduled work session. They said they’d had enough of Coupeville’s negative attitude toward the Navy.

“I’m not turning the cheek anymore on something that matters this much,” Johnson said.

Chilling effect

The stance on Coupeville taken by Johnson and Hannold has the potential for impacts beyond the town’s grant request.

Councilwoman Pat Powell is also the director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, which has a history of partnering with the county and has received grants in the past through the county’s Conservation Futures Fund. The fact that Powell is part of the Coupeville council won’t be lost on him when grant applications come around again, Hannold said.

“I would be lying if I said it wouldn’t be in the back of my mind,” he said.

Critics say the board’s rejection of Coupeville’s application and such an admission sets a dangerous precedent: Disagree with the North Whidbey’s commissioners and their priorities and be prepared to face economic consequences.

Price Johnson, the senior commissioner, said such arbitrary decision making has never happened while she’s been on the board; decisions have always been made on project criteria. Infusing politics into the process is inappropriate and infringes on people’s First Amendment rights, she said.

“I was just taken aback that they would do this,” she said. “I hope this is a one-time misstep.”

Whether Coupeville is permanently barred from county grant funds remains unclear. Requests for comment left at the commissioners’ office and on the cell phones of Hannold and Johnson Monday afternoon were not returned by press time Tuesday.

Price Johnson fears the door is now open for the rejection of other funds doled out by the county as well, such as “transportation” and “emergency management” monies.

Langley Mayor Tim Callison said it’s a concern for his city. It applies for .09 funds and other grants from the county, but is also home to a vastly different demographic than North Whidbey. The city is currently debating whether to become a sanctuary city, and Callison said he can’t help but wonder if issues like that will count against Langley.

“It’s kind of a chilling scenario for us,” he said.

The city put in a $328,000 application for .09 funds. He said the application should be judged on its merits, not unrelated political reasons or personal opinions.

“I suppose they could not approve our project because I’m too tall or because they don’t like the way I part my hair,” Callison said.

According to Price Johnson, Langley’s application was approved by the board.

But other longtime elected officials say the board’s decision is not entirely out of the norm and well within the rights of the commissioners. Curt Gordon, a Port of South Whidbey commissioner who serves as president of the Council of Governments, said he thought Coupeville’s project was a good one and so did the rest of the council. But the commissioners are well within their rights to say “no” for whatever reason, and in this case they did.

“People need to realize that we give our commissioners a lot of power,” he said.

Gordon added that he’s known that for a long time and doesn’t feel like he’s “walking on egg shells.” The board is legally empowered to make such decisions, even if their reasons are arbitrary.

Price Johnson said that may be so, but it’s not sitting right with her.

“Just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t make it the right thing to do,” she said.

Elaine Marlow, budget director of Island County, said she’s currently working on a review of the .09 fund allotment process at the request of Hannold and Johnson. It will outline how other counties dole out the money and provide options for new methods. She hopes it will be complete by late spring or early summer.

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