South End rallies against park surplus plan

Steve Erickson of Whidbey Environmental Action Network addresses a crowd at a Tuesday meeting concerning plans for three state park properties.

Washington State Parks asked, and the people of South Whidbey answered.

Don’t give away or sell portions of Possession Point State Park — that was the mantra at a packed meeting Tuesday concerning plans to surplus the upland portion of the park and 560 acres of tideland at Useless Bay. Of the more than 80 people who attended, not a single person voiced support for the proposal.

Parks officials got the message.

“I heard that loud and clear,” said parks planner Randy Kline in an interview Thursday.

It wasn’t much of a surprise, however, as agency officials were already well aware of the firestorm the surplus proposal had created, having fielded calls from concerned South Whidbey residents, and one state lawmaker, for more than a week. They prompted some last-minute changes before the meeting began, chiefly the creation of a second alternative that provided a non-surplus option.

Washington State Parks has since last year been engaged in a Classification and Management Plan, or CAMP, process for three of its properties: South Whidbey State Park, Useless Bay and Possession Point State Park. Like long-range plans, they’re an outline for the next 20 years.

South Whidbey residents learned recently that the state proposed two alternatives for Useless Bay and Possession Point, both of which slated them for surplus — all of Useless Bay and the upland portion of Possession Point. The designation means they could be given to another public agency, or in rare cases auctioned to a private bidder.

Parks officials responded by saying the planning process is far from complete, and that the chances for sale to a private entity are remote. Yet, it didn’t stop the host of parkland advocates from attending this week’s meeting in Freeland and making their opinions known.

Summer Eberhart said she moved to Whidbey from a place where pollution was a real issue. She counts herself lucky to be here, and warned others not take Whidbey’s treasures for granted. Future generations are counting on it.

“I would like everyone to consider the people coming after you,” she said.

Similarly, Freeland resident Andrew Horwitz argued that decisions made today can have a lasting impact. Some can never be changed, he said.

“Once the trees are cut and the land is sold, it’s gone forever,” Horwitz said.

Parks officials were quick to address such concerns, telling the crowd that the agency has absolutely no plans to “sell” property, and that surplussing is a mechanism to explore transferring stewardship/ownership to another public agency. For example, it could be given to the county, said Steve Brand, partnership planning program manager for the department.

Such pleas for calm didn’t always alleviate concern, and in a few cases were met with skepticism. Elisa Miller, a Clinton woman and one of those who raised the alarm about the agency’s surplussing alternatives, called it “inaccurate” and “disingenuous” to claim that surplussing is only a means of passing property to other public entities; she cited correspondence from Steve Hahn, lands program manager for state parks, that said the designation permits the property to be auctioned in the event that it can’t be given away.

Following on her comments, Terry Metz, a Possession Point resident, said he doubts there’s many takers on South Whidbey or Island County. He also made clear that takes little stock in verbal assurances.

“So many times I’ve heard that it’s not an option,” said Metz, only to watch later that reality proves otherwise.

Others voiced concern about Useless Bay as well. Freeland resident Gloria Koll noted that the majority of Washington’s tidelands were sold by the Legislature as a source of funding. It was a mistake, she said, and warned the public to not to let it happen again.

“I caution everyone to pay close attention to the sale or surplussing of any tidelands,” Koll said.

Others at the meeting connected the surplussing issues, and other changes in direction, such as the consideration of Recreational Business Activities at select properties, as a result of drastically reduced funding. They laid the blame at the feet of the state Legislature, and urged people to call their local lawmakers, one of whom was in the room — state Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton.

The suggestions received much applause.

Smith did address the room, speaking about the funding challenges facing the state and the prioritization of protecting existing properties over the purchase of new ones. She said Possession Point was a good example of preserving what the public already has.

While officials said the public’s message was received “loud and clear,” it’s too soon to say whether it will dictate the final plan. Kline said it’s “unlikely” Possession Point will be surplussed, but that for the time being it will remain an option.

“We have no plans to surplus or exchange this, but we want this to be part of the discussion,” Kline said.

He added that the agency isn’t “comfortable” making permanent decisions before the process is complete and when emotions are so high.

The focus on the surplus proposal took staff by surprise, he said, and has served as a distraction from other issues facing the property, from discussions about the possible relocation of existing beachfront campsites to what should be done about the old house on the property. These are important issues facing Possession Point that have been overshadowed by fears that will may never materialize, he said.

“Useless Bay is a whole other story,” Kline said.

There was far less feedback concerning the 560 acres of tidelands, which includes parcels that stretch from north of Double Bluff to parcels at Deer Lagoon, around Sunlight Beach all the way to just north of Maxwelton. All the property is submerged, he said, and there’s no public beach access.

Though kite boarders expressed a strong desire for the area to remain public, there have been other concerns by land owners about property lines.

“Based on what we’ve heard so far, that may be a candidate for some manner of exchange with department of natural resources, or some agency interested in protecting natural resources like eel grass,” Kline said.

State parks has two more public meetings planned, one in August to discuss management proposals for the three properties and another in early fall concerning the agency’s actual recommendations.

“If you’re seeing things you don’t like there, that’s where you’d want to make sure your concerns are heard,” Kline said.

The final step is when the plans are presented for approval  to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission — the seven-member board appointed by the governor to make policy decision for the agency. That meeting is loosely set for November.

Incidentally, a Commission commissioner, Port Townsend resident Roger Schmitt, was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting. He defended parks staff as dedicated stewards and protectors of state parkland, while also reminding the public that many of the proposals being discussed are a long way from reality. For example, if the hotly contested Recreational Business Activity ideas ever got a green light by the commission each area would be subject to environmental studies before development could begin. And people can be sure they’ll have a chance to weigh in, he said.

“Nothing is going to happen without a lot of public input,” Schmitt said.