Rural event noise re-emerges as major issue for Island County

Brad Thompson

Noisy events held on rural land emerged Wednesday night as a major concern for about 30 residents attending one of three meetings island-wide on how best to use rural land.

Four county planners at the Coupeville Library broke the crowd into small groups and led discussions from prepared worksheets covering a range of subjects.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson and newly appointed Planning Director Keith Higman monitored the discussions.

The meetings are one of several steps, including a survey, the results of which were released during the evening, toward helping revise the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which will guide development for the next 20 years.

A similar meeting was scheduled for Thursday in Oak Harbor, and a meeting is set for 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27 at the South Whidbey Elementary community room in Langley.

Talk in one Coupeville group started out generally, discussing the competing interests of businesses operating on rural land and of their nearby residents.

“Businesses provide an important service to the community, and there has to be some real consideration to letting them prosper,” said Michele Lynn, who with her husband Jerry Raitzer owns Coupeville’s Milepost 19 Farm. They’d like to add some form of tourism, maybe a corn maze, a petting zoo or a u-pick operation, because “with a small farm, it’s hard to make a go of it just from selling what you grow.”

But, Lynn said she realizes that “there is a balance to be struck between business owners and residents concerned about the impact on them of those businesses.”

Conversation in that group quickly turned to events and rural event centers, defined by the county as “a permanently established facility in a rural location and setting that operates on a continuous basis to accommodate the temporary assembly of people for special functions such as reunions weddings, seminars and special instruction, ceremonies, receptions and picnics.”

The sites take advantage of special rural characteristics such as natural features, historic structures and landscapes, special views, open vista or a secluded pastoral locale.

Though not a rural event center, Freeland’s Dancing Fish Farm hosted eight weddings this year, using only the temporary permits that are required to do so, said Brad Thompson, who owns the vineyard/farm with his wife Nancy.

The events brought as much as $250,000 in related spending to the island, he estimated.

“We don’t have bands or imported DJ’s,” he said. “The music is turned down at 9:15 p.m. and turned off at 9:30 p.m. We turn the bass down. We don’t want to offend our neighbors.”

The groups didn’t share their results at the meeting’s end, an omission that left some attendees disappointed.

More retirees than young families with children were likely to attend the evening-time meetings, and daytime outreach through the PTA and school groups might bring new voices into the discussion, Price Johnson said earlier in the week at a different meeting.

“Those most affected by the Comp Plan are the ones not participating in this conversation,” Commissioner Jill Johnson added.

“So much depends on the integrity of the property owner and the respect they show for their neighborhood,” Commissioner Rick Hannold said. “Things change with time, and if we act with integrity and we respect other people’s rights, it’s all going to work out.”

Additional meetings will be scheduled to further the discussion, Price Johnson promised during Wednesday night’s gathering.

Rural residents of Island County cherish most of all the bucolic character of their homes, followed by the quiet and the views, according to the survey of 800 such residents taken last month. The results, debuted at Wednesday night’s meeting, were intended to help shape discussions there. The county planning department mailed the surveys to randomly selected addresses zoned rural.

Only 76 residents responded.

“The results might not be statistically significant, but they illustrate there are contradictory perceptions of rural land use, so there’s a need for further discussion,” said long-range planner Meredith Penny at a work session Wednesday.

One of the foremost issues to be determined is to what extent commercial undertakings, such as rural event centers, should be allowed in rural areas, including at wineries.

Over 96 percent of the survey respondents were full-time county residents. Most (27 percent) said they have lived here 11-20 years. The vast majority (95 percent) said they maintain their primary residence here.

When asked what they love most about Island County, 18 people responded “Rural/rural character/country living,” and 16 people responded “Quiet.” Only one person each cited “Minimal rules for property use” and “Opportunities.” Some 79 percent said they agreed that cities, towns and built-up areas already provide enough commercial business opportunities. Only 22 percent disagreed with that assertion.

Roughly 85 percent of respondents said they would favorably view the construction of farms near them, while 60 percent said they would negatively view residential subdivisions, 36 percent would negatively view non-agricultural business and 35 percent would negatively view light industry.

About 32 percent said they would favorably view rural events centers, compared with about 23 percent who said they would view such centers negatively.

When asked to choose what uses are appropriate on agricultural lands, 38 percent chose lodging, 28 percent chose indoor concerts and 42 percent chose weddings. With regard to wineries, 30 percent selected lodging as an appropriate use, 28 percent selected outdoor concerts, 35 percent selected indoor concerts and 59 percent selected weddings. About 35 percent of respondents said they would support residential event centers on rural lands of five acres or more.

“Regulating noise” emerged as the most popular way to limit the disruption of rural character, with 84 percent of respondents choosing it. Next were limiting hours of operation (62 percent), proximity to other suitable uses (48 percent) and building size (48 percent).

Some of the survey results seemed internally contradictory, the commissioners noted.

“Half the respondents arrived in the past 20 years, and 94 percent live in single-family homes, yet the foremost threat [cited] to the rural quality of life is housing development,” Commissioner Price Johnson observed.

 

Survey results may be viewed at http://www.islandcounty.net/com

missioners/Worksessions/2015/10-21-15-PD.pdf