Island County prioritizes beach access

Whidbey Island Sea Kayakers (WISK) rest on a Whidbey beach. Island County will spend $175

Beach access advocates have something to celebrate.

Island County has earmarked $175,000 to identify the county’s many beach access points and prioritize them for maintenance and signage. The lack of county-sanctioned beach access, along with clearly marked kayak access points have been an ongoing concern for groups supporting public access to the seashore.

“I think this is a good thing,” said Sue Ellen White with Whidbey Island Sea Kayakers Thursday. “We’ve been talking to them for years and it was kind of like they turned a deaf ear to this.”

Doubling the funding will allow the county to take a comprehensive look at its many beach access points, determine ownership of uplands and tidelands and prioritize them for future improvements.

Beach access advocates pressed county staff at transportation-related open houses last spring on both the North and South ends of the island. Residents told county officials that creating an effective kayak trail would be great for the area’s economy and provide protections to public beach access points.

“The one thing everyone overlooks is the economic benefit of that,” said Mike McVay with Island Beach Access. “Everything the chamber puts out brags about our beaches.”

Originally funded at $85,000, an additional $90,000 was made available through federal transportation dollars and approved by the county’s Sub-Regional Transportation Planning Organization Wednesday.

Island County Public Works Director Bill Oakes said counties often struggle to obligate enough federal projects to satisfy the state and are charged to go back and try to find additional qualifying projects. In response, the county has tried to incorporate additional possibilities, such as the extra $90,000 intended for non-motorized transportation.

“The federal government wants us to spend the money,” said Todd Carlson, a planning and engineering services manager for the state Department of Transportation at Wednesday’s meeting. However, “local governments have a harder time spending it than state governments,” he said.

Oakes made the case that using this for beach access allows the county to address a long-standing community concern.

“The old vision was truly going to be an update of the existing plan,” Oakes said. “It’s time to update and I’m saying that rather than using the plan to put a check in a box, let’s use it to fix a problem we all have. Getting people to the water in an island community is important. I think it’s a good investment.”

Oakes said county-owned properties have good accessibility to the water, and parking possibilities would go to the top of the list for improvements. While a couple elements of the project must still get past Island County commissioners, Oakes said he felt confident that it would receive support. Commissioners Jill Johnson and Rick Hannold both sit on the Sub-RTPO board and voted in favor of the project, and Commissioner Helen Price Johnson has been a long-time champion of beach access.

Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy, who also sits on the Sub-RTPO board, said that a number of people on the South End of the island are passionate about retaining beach access and he made a motion in support of the update.

The Sub-RTPO, comprised of representatives from Island County’s governmental bodies, approved the updated transportation element with two abstentions and one dissenting vote by Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley.

Dudley voted against the increased funding because he said he believes the county is simply scrambling for a reason to spend extra tax dollars and that the board can “choose to give back money we don’t use.”

“My concern was it looked like we felt compelled to find something, anything to throw money at,” Dudley added Thursday. “It’s creating justification in finding a place to throw $90,000.”

Oak Harbor Councilman Rick Almberg, who abstained from voting, said he wasn’t sure the beach access was the best use of the non-motorized funding. The second abstention was Navy liaison Jennifer Myers, who always abstains.

Johnson, who chairs the Sub-RTPO, pointed out that the project could cause “potential conflicts” with adjacent property owners. In addition, Johnson was concerned that new information on “cloudy titles” will force the county to “look the other way” if they don’t have the resources to follow through on the legal ramifications.

The county is currently in litigation regarding a public access point on Wonn Road, where a neighbor claims to own the tidal lands.