Diking commissioners prepare for a spirited first meeting

A pending Diking District 1 resolution is the latest wrinkle in the continuing story of pumps, tax assessments, charges, countercharges, ecological debates and the clash of island cultures in the 743 tranquil acres surrounding Deer Lagoon on Useless Bay.

New diking district commissioner John Shepard outside the house he’s completing on Sunlight Beach Road: “We’re not even being benefited.”

John Shepard is making good on his promise to shake things up in Island County Diking District 1.

The newest commissioner on the three-man district panel, Shepard is pushing for wetter wetlands.

In a “Resolution to Save the Wetlands” dated April 5, Shepard proposes that the water-table level in the south pond be increased at least 2.6 feet.

“I originally planned to submit this resolution at the scheduled April 2 meeting that was cancelled by Steve Arnold,” Shepard said. “I was not consulted about cancellation of this meeting and am therefore disappointed about the delay.”

Arnold, however, said the cancellation was necessary.

“I cancelled the meeting because there was no business to discuss,” said Arnold, chairman of the commission. “We’ve cancelled meetings before. You don’t have meetings just to have meetings.”

Shepard said his resolution will be submitted for consideration at the commission’s next meeting May 7. It will be his first official session as a commissioner.

“The meeting should be interesting,” Shepard said.

The resolution is the latest wrinkle in the continuing story of pumps, tax assessments, charges, countercharges, ecological debates and the clash of island cultures in the 743 tranquil acres surrounding Deer Lagoon on Useless Bay.

The result has been bitter feelings from many corners, as well as the resignation of Diking Commissioner Bob Kohlwes, 77, a longtime resident and property owner in the area who said he had grown tired of the bad feelings.

The other commissioners are Arnold and Ray Gabelein, both members of families with historic links to the area. Gabelein, in fact, was born nearby.

The district, established in 1914 to manage tidal and stormwater runoff, includes the neighborhoods of Sunlight Beach, Olympic View and Sun Vista and Useless Bay Golf and Country Club.

The diking district bubbled along through the years, with the original dike and outflow system for the most part managing the drainage. Commissioners and their family members, most longtime residents of the area, kept the outflow pipes clear of sand and the stormwater flowing.

But as the surrounding South Whidbey area became more and more developed, diking commissioners determined that the original outflow system wouldn’t keep up with the water, especially in the event of a big storm.

So, last year they ordered a new pump, one that can drain 6,000 gallons of water a minute. It was installed on Christmas Eve.

“It’s working great,” Gabelein said of the industrial-strength device that appears to be pumping as much controversy as it does water.

“It was an absolute necessity,” Arnold said of the pump. “We were falling behind further every year.”

The pump project cost $430,000, and residents of the 460 acres of the district who commissioners determined would benefit from its installation were assessed additional property taxes. They’ll be paying for the next five years.

Shepard himself said he has been assessed an additional $1,300 per year. He’s completing a new home at Sunlight Beach, and also owns property in Olympic View.

Many critics of the diking commission are paying their assessments with accompanying letters of protest, Shepard said.

“People knew they were in a diking district when they moved there,” Arnold countered. “We’re just here to serve the district and do the best we can to keep it functioning the way it was set up.”

A group of district residents, Citizens in Support of Useless Bay Community (CSUBC), says assessments for the pump project are inequitable, that the project wasn’t property advertised and may not be needed and that the original diking commissioners themselves were not properly seated.

They also say commissioners have been lax about meeting notices and communicating official actions to district residents. Some critics even imply that the original commissioners bought the pump to drain the wetlands for their own profit.

“That’s ridiculous,” Arnold said. “All the property I have is wetlands and I’m not going to build on it. They’re just using that as another excuse to keep things stirred up.”

“We’re just trying to keep it from flooding,” he continued, and added of his detractors: “They should be keeping everybody in mind, not just a select group of people.”

Going deep

Shepard said raising the water level in the wetlands would benefit the wildlife habitat, and would maintain adequate pressure in the gravity-flow system to keep the water draining and the outflow pipes clear of sand, with minimum use of the pump, reducing the cost of electricity.

Arnold said the level of the beach has risen through the years, and that the outflow pipes will always need to be cleared manually from time to time.

This past fall, about 50 residents attended a hearing of the Island County Commissioners to demand that the diking commission be disbanded and a new one set in place.

County commissioners declined to take action, but CSUBC’s lawyer, Elizabeth Derrig, said the group will continue to press the county to determine if Arnold and Gabelein were properly elected, and if not, to appoint two new commissioners.

“That’s where we’re at right now,” Derrig said this week.

Shepard, 63, a retired physician and professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has been a full-time district resident for the past year and a half. But he and his wife, Coyla, have been visiting family in the area for more than 30 years.

Outspoken critic

Shepard has been an outspoken member of CSUBC. When Kohlwes resigned, Shepard applied for the position. He was the only applicant, and he was appointed to the diking commission by county commissioners.

Shepard, though, didn’t take his seat on the board after Arnold and Gabelein questioned whether the county had gone through the proper notification procedure in posting the vacant position.

“There have been questions like this raised in the past,” Arnold said in reference to CSUBC’s criticism of the commission’s procedures. “We just want to make sure everything is done properly.”

County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said this week that as far as the county is concerned, Shepard is bona fide.

“He is a legally-appointed diking district commissioner with full authority,” she said. “The notification was proper, absolutely.”

“If the county and the district’s voters are confident in his appointment, then I’m fine with it,” Arnold said.

Much of the dispute centers on money.

Shepard said changes in the method of assessments through the years have resulted in an imbalance of payment that has beach owners paying most of the cost, while Gabelein, Arnold and other owners of wetland property are assessed on a value of only $1,100 an acre.

Shepard also said that part of the rationale for the new pump was to minimize the amount of water that collects along Sunlight Beach Road.

“We’re not even being benefited,” Shepard said, pointing to a large puddle of water near his new Sunlight Beach driveway.

Arnold said the controversy surrounding the diking district has created divisions in a formerly tight-knit community.

“Before, if someone along Sunlight Beach had a barbecue, they would invite everybody in the neighborhood,” Arnold said. “Now you can have two people across the street from each other disagreeing. It’s too bad this had to happen.”

So, what’s ahead?

Arnold said the answer may be for the county to follow the lead of others in the state and create a countywide diking district “where everybody pays.” But he added that the cost of establishing such a district probably would be prohibitive, especially in these lean times.

The road ahead

Meanwhile, the other commissioners aren’t looking back.

“I’m looking forward to keeping the district moving in the right direction, and not dwell in the past any more than necessary,” Arnold said.

“We’ll continue to work to keep the lines of communication open,” he added.

“It’s a handful of people who are screaming the most,” Arnold continued. “It only takes a few to cause a big row. I think the majority of people are happy with what we did.”

Shepard said he will continue to press for openness in diking district government, equity in tax assessments and raising the water table “to eliminate a lot of the pumping.”

“Like most things in life, it’s a problem with multiple issues,” Shepard said.

Gabelein said that recent commission meetings have been civil and business-like.

“But same as any board, I don’t think you’re always going to have everybody in total agreement,” he added.

Reflecting on the situation, Arnold said: “It’s going to take quite awhile to heal the relationships we’ve had over so many years.”

“But when we have a big water event, they’re going to be glad we have that pump in place,” he added.

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