Island County declines six-issue settlement with WEAN

Whidbey Environmental Action Network renewed legal action this past Thursday after Island County commissioners passed this week on a settlement.

WEAN, which has been embroiled in legal actions protesting some of the county’s environmental ordinances for years, filed an action last week asking the Growth Management Hearing Board to provide a summary judgment on the settlement items by June. The South Whidbey-based environmental advocacy group offered the county the opportunity to settle six of 14 issues with the county’s Fish and Wildlife ordinance, but commissioners said in a prepared statement they are opting instead to wait and address the issues during the Comprehensive Plan update. It’s in progress now and due next year.

“As we look forward and begin to devote considerable county resources to updating our Comprehensive Plan in 2016, we believe an all-inclusive, complete and open process is the better approach for the resolution of these issues,” said Planning Director Dave Wechner, in the news release.

A settlement would “be inappropriate at this time, as it could not be done with the appropriate public participation and community consideration that is so important to this board and the citizens of Island County.”

“What we value is that the whole community has these conversations,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson on Friday, “not just one group.”

The board’s decision was a surprise, according to Steve Erickson, spokesman and legal coordinator for WEAN.

“In discussions with staff before, it all looked pretty good,” he said.

Price Johnson, chairwoman of the board, said there were no guarantees made during any of the conversations the commissioners or staff had with WEAN members.

“It was always up to the board,” she said.

Erickson said the county waited until the very last minute to make a decision on the settlement. The deadline for them to file the latest motion was Friday. The county now has until March 16 to respond, and a hearing is set for May 21.

WEAN filed the original appeal in November.

The six issues proposed for settlement were largely legal in nature and best decided by a judge and not left to commissioner discretion, Erickson said. The settlement took issue with the county’s definitions for “reasonable use,” “permitted alterations” and “clearing” and posited that those definitions do not adequately protect critical areas.

WEAN maintained that exempting beaver dams from regulation does not properly protect wetlands in a way that’s in keeping with state law.

“I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt, but in part,  this really does look like all they were after is delay, delay, delay,” Erickson said.

“We’ve been seeing this for decades.”

These repeated delays may result in the county being unable to meet its 2016 deadline for the Comprehensive Plan, according to WEAN’s Marianne Edain.

“There’s no way they can address all these issues by 2016,” Edain said.

Price Johnson said the update will, in fact, be a “big job,” but the board of commissioners believes it’s more efficient to look at the county’s planning ordinances as a whole.

“It’s wise for us to be integrated in our process and not in a piecemeal fashion,” Price Johnson said. “We need to use our resources wisely.”