Possession Point uplands plan sparks resident concern

Karen Anderson

Most of Possession Point State Park will be reclassified as “surplus” and become eligible for transfer to another public entity or even sold to a private party, under a long-range plan being proposed by Washington State Parks.

The state began its Classification and Management Planning (or CAMP) process late last year for three properties: South Whidbey State Park, 560 acres of tideland in the Useless Bay area, and the 25-acre Possession Point State Park. Developed with community input, once completed the documents will outline the direction of each location for the next 20 years.

Though the planning process has been ongoing for months — two public meetings have already been held — some South Whidbey residents are crying foul this week, saying the plan to surplus parts of Possession Point is only just now becoming known, and only days before the third public meeting of the input gathering process.

“This is very difficult and scary,” said Elisa Miller, one of those raising the alarm about the state’s surplus proposal.

“To me this is a sacred spot,” she added.

Rallying to her cry are a host of parks advocates and supporters, a former state lawmaker and Whidbey environmentalists. State parks officials, however, are quick to say it’s too soon for panic. No decisions have been made, classification and management plans are developed with the community and it’s not too late to make changes, according to Daniel Farber, director of policy and governmental affairs for state parks.

“Does that mean we’re open [to other alternatives]? The answer is ‘yes,’ ” Farber said.

“We never go in having everything figured out,” he added. “We go in there asking for public comment.”

He encouraged people to attend next week’s meeting and voice their opinions.

The meeting is scheduled for 6-8 p.m., Tuesday, April 26 at Whidbey Water Services on 5585 Lotto Ave., Freeland.

Possession Point State Park was purchased in 1999 for about $1.4 million using a mix of state Recreation and Conservation Office funding and a contribution from Goosefoot. The park is part of the Cascade Marine Trail and used by kayakers, but also visited by hikers along a ridge trail. It leads to a scenic overlook with views to Seattle and Mount Rainier.

It may also have historical significance, with some speculating that its namesake was derived from Capt. George Vancouver and crew during its 18th century voyage standing atop the ridge and declaring “possession” of all within sight. Whether based in fact or fiction, the trail is home to a tree used as a survey marker more than 100 years prior. The mark is still clearly visible today.

Miller was one of those who advocated for the area’s preservation and purchase years ago. It was “saved” with the help of Dave Anderson, a 10th District state representative at the time. He rallied state parks to gather the funding, but they were several hundred thousands dollars short of the sale price, he said. Believing the opportunity was lost, Anderson bumped into Linda Moore, then executive director of Goosefoot, and relayed the news.

“I got a phone call on Tuesday, two days later; she said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s a done deal.’ ”

“It was a miracle, we were meant to have it.”

Miller, Anderson and four other volunteers later spent months building the trail, hacking out a path with picks and trucking railroad ties up the hill for steps. They’re still in place today.

The state’s classification and management plan for Possession Point contains two alternatives, which would assign classifications to the areas such as “recreation,” “resource recreation” and “natural.” Each define a type of use, from medium intensities uses such as “biking and hiking trails” to low intensity uses like “hiking and interpretation.”

Both alternatives, however, propose identifying the upland portion of the park — about three-fourths of the total area — as “appropriate for surplus or exchange with entities such as Island County, the [state] Department of Natural Resources, or the [state] Department of Fish and Wildlife.”

According to Farber, if the surplus classifications were ultimately approved over the objections of the public, a scenario he indicated was unlikely, actual sale or development of the property is highly unlikely but not impossible.

Surplussed property is first offered to other governments at no cost. If there are no takers, it can be auctioned but properties purchased with Recreation and Conservation Office money carry a mandate that it remain open to the public if sold to a private party. If the offer was refused, the  rules say that state parks would need to find an equivalent property for the public with the money received from the auction.

Selling may also be hindered because some of the money came from private contributors, in this case Goosefoot. The exact amount could not be confirmed by press time but Nancy Nordhoff, a longtime member of Goosefoot’s board, confirmed that she supplied the money for the organization’s donation. She said it was in the neighborhood of several hundred thousand dollars.

Nordhoff declined to weigh in on the surplus proposal, but did identify herself as an “environmentalist.” She also noted that any development on a property can fundamentally change its character.

“Once you’ve put a structure on it, you’ve lost the land,” she said.

Farber said conditions of Goosefoot’s donation alone could stop any sale but he couldn’t say for sure without an examination of the original contract.

“It depends on the terms of the sale,” he said.

Along with legal issues, Farber said there are moral and political aspects of selling property secured with a donated money.

Yet critics say that surplussing park land is a Pandora’s box, no matter how small or remote the possibility of sale or development.

“Once you’ve made it possible, it’s possible,” said Marianne Edain, of Whidbey Environmental Action Network.

Edain claims the surplus proposal is part of a fundamental shift in the state’s approach to property management, one born of financial crisis created by the state Legislature. The action network is planning to appeal a 2013 policy decision to “commercialize parks” as a way to make up for funding deficits, a plan detailed in a 1,600 “transformation strategy.” It’s the same plan that proposed 10 pilot projects that would create revenue opportunities, or Recreational Business Activities, at select properties around the state. One of those is Joseph Whidbey State Park on North Whidbey. If approved, up to 50 cabins would be built on 60 acres of the 206-acre property.

Edain said agency’s funding challenges are real, and that the agency has been put in the position of trying to “squeeze money out of stones,” but that the action network is “fundamentally against” the agency’s solution. Getting rid of land or commercializing them “is not why we have state parks,” she said.

Sue Ellen White, a member of Friends of South Whidbey State Park — a volunteer group that helps steward the park — agrees that it’s the wrong approach.

“I’m not castigating state parks,” White said. “They’re in a terrible position, but this no solution.”

“I think this whole issue really lands in the lap of the legislature and [its] failure to fund parks, our heritage.”

State Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, championed a halt to what she characterized as the “continual drumbeat in Olympia” for new legacy land purchases. The state simply can’t afford to keep gobbling up more land when it lacks the resources to manage what it already has, she said.

Smith said this is clearly a case of the latter, protecting property already in the public’s hands, and maintained that she is a strong advocate for access to the shoreline and waterfront property. She’s concerned about the proposal at Possession Point State Park and plans to both visit the property with agency planners next week and attend Tuesday’s meeting.

“As a member of the community and a legislator, I intend to weigh in,” Smith said.

She said she’s “very resistant” to supporting a surplus in this case unless there’s a compelling reason from the community and parks — and there isn’t. Smith said it will be up to parks staff to show that they really are open to alternatives, and is optimistic they’ll do just that.

“I’m hopeful based on what they said to me that they’ll listen to the community,” Smith added.

For advocates such as Miller and Anderson, Possession Point remains “sacred” ground, an irreplaceable and historic jewel secured for preservation. No matter how unlikely a sale or trade might be, surplussing it is a gamble the state simply shouldn’t take.

“The bottom line is once these things are gone, you can’t get them back,” Anderson said.