Ebey’s Trail grant approval veers off course

The path to get approval from county commissioners for a $50,000 grant to improve hiking trails in Central Whidbey Ebey’s proved long and long-winded.

The nearly two-hour funding debate at a Tuesday Island County commissioners meeting veered so far off course that even the word “Hitler” got thrown in the mix of accusations, denials, comments and clarifications. Words such as “collusion”, “extortion” and “political payback” often punctuated the stale air of the basement hearing room.

In the end, Commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Rick Hannold voted to approve the request by Whidbey Camano Land Trust to plan additional trails in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve near Coupeville.

Commissioner Jill Johnson voted “no.”

Johnson said she couldn’t reconcile exposing the public to the same “intolerable” conditions cited by Central Whidbey residents who say the noise of frequent flights of Navy aircraft, EA-18G Growlers, is a public health hazard.

“Why would you want to expose the public to the same experience you say is intolerable?” she said. “In some ways, this is what you’ve asked us to do. I feel like this is a result of years of listening.”

The Whidbey Camano Land Trust raises private money and solicits government grants to preserve land for community use. It sought funding from the Conservation Futures Program, a property-tax-supported fund aimed at protecting and preserving land of public interest.

Navy Growler jets fly overhead and perform aircraft-carrier-landing practice at Outlying Field Coupeville, which is within earshot of Ebey’s Reserve and a series of trails that lead past working farms, sweeping green fields, wildlife habitat, wetlands, bluffs and beaches.

Island County commissioners have awarded the Land Trust money for similar projects in the past.

“Again and again, the Camano Land Trust has demonstrated its ability to highly leverage each dollar of Conservation Future Funds it is granted by securing other funds,” Land Trust executive director Pat Powell said during her presentation. “The Walking Ebey’s Corridor Trail will serve the citizens of Island County and as well as thousands of visitors.”

The compatibility of recreational land use with an active military landing practice field lie at the heart of the contentious board meeting.

Areas known as accident potential zones or APZ’S, may be expanded near OLF Coupeville if the military increases Growler operations. The Navy is slated to release an environmental impact statement on expansion, which would include public health data.

Johnson said she voted against funding in 2013 for the Kettle Trails that run alongside Highway 20 in Coupeville for the same reason — not wanting to add publicly-funded projects within an area that could be affected by expanded accident potential zones.

“These incompatibility issues are going to get harder and harder over the years,” Johnson said. “This is a very complex issue and it’s a long-game issue for me.”

People on both sides of the debate called the others hypocrites.

The Land Trust scored well on the grant application’s 12-point criteria. However, at a May 10 work session, commissioners Hannold and Johnson discussed the need to request additional information that centered on exposing hikers to the noise of EA-18G Growlers.

Price Johnson was out of town for the May 10 meeting and attended via telephone. She had to leave the phone conversation early and didn’t know the other two commissioners were requiring the county health officer and other entities to address any health concerns that could arise from the mix of public hiking trails and Growler activity.

The irony of requesting health data was not lost on some who had asked commissioners in years past to collect information on potential health hazards from long-term exposure to Growler activity.

Those requests have repeatedly been blocked by Hannold and Johnson, both stalwart supporters of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and Outlying Field Coupeville.

Marianne Edain of Whidbey Environmental Action Network said the concern over the noise from Growler flights may be a moot point in the future because drones may do the work of Growlers.

“The assumption is Growlers will always be here,” Edain said. “But, Growlers come and Growlers go. The prairie will be here hopefully for the next 10 to 20 millennial.”

Price Johnson assured those at the meeting that no violations of procedure occurred during the application review, including at the May 10 work session.

“There was nothing nefarious about the process that was followed,” Price Johnson said.

Her objection, she explained, was that criteria were added on a grant application after it had been submitted that had no precedent.

“We have all struggled with the nuances,” of suggestions of vindictiveness and punitive action, she said. “There was a cloud over this that was really unfortunate.”