Growth Management Hearings Board tells Island County to hurry up, comply

A state judicial body last week gave Island County until Nov. 10 to say how and when it will comply with a decision the body issued this summer. But two Island County Commissioners insisted the county will not be pushed.

“It has been four months since the final decision and order were issued,” wrote the Growth Management Hearings Board on Oct. 26. That is “sufficient time within which to take steps.”

The hearings board also required the county to file a status report on Dec. 18, as required in the June 24 order.

In that order, the hearings board ruled in favor of Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN), requiring that the county protect its only Natural Area Preserve and follow the state’s Growth Management Act by protecting critical areas using the best available science.

Specifically, it ordered the county to safeguard the habitat of rare plants, prairies, oak woodlands and the Western toad. It required the county to regulate the removal of beaver dams and to clarify under what circumstances farmland can be abandoned for more than five years and still remain exempt from critical-area regulations, according to WEAN.

The county has resisted obeying the June 24 order, WEAN said. It failed to create a schedule or a work plan for complying with the order. Then the county prosecutor, charged with acting as the commissioners’ lawyer, botched an attempt to appeal the order, failing to file it in a proper and timely manner with the county’s superior court. The court never got a chance to rule on the appeal’s merits.

Commissioner Jill Johnson earlier this week emphatically refused to promise compliance with the Hearing Board’s deadlines.

“If I were WEAN, I wouldn’t assume the county is going to just lie down,” she wrote in an email. “We will develop policy that is pragmatic, rational and respectful of our community, and if we need to take time to do that, then in my opinion that’s what we will do. Balance is not found by succumbing to the desires of a special-interest group.”

Some of the hearings board’s rulings — particularly those dealing with buffers and with protecting flora — work to the disadvantage of property owners, she said in a later interview.

“The average property owner counts on the commissioners to be fair and balanced,” she said. “The hearings board has an agenda and made broad misinterpretations. In this instance, they’re way out of line.”

She lamented the county’s bungled appeal, calling it “mind-boggling” and writing that “it left the citizens of Island County subject to some over-reaching and unprecedented policy interpretations that needed to be reviewed by a higher court.”

Johnson predicted that the issues will be revisited when the county completes its comprehensive plan, which is due June 30.

“I assume we’ll get sued after the comp plan,” she said. “This time we’ll get our appeal in on time and we’ll go to a higher court for interpretation, because these questions set precedent.”

Commissioner Rick Hannold said the litigation is derailing the county’s planning efforts.

“Every time WEAN throws an administrative roadblock in the way, it takes time away from people trying to revise the comp plan,” he said in an interview earlier this week.