State spares Joseph Whidbey park from rec business activity pilot

Visitors enjoy walking their dogs on the beach at Joseph Whidbey State Park in late April. The park was under consideration for privately-financed development.

Supporters of Joseph Whidbey State Park upset with the idea of private development in their park can breath a sigh of relief.

Joseph Whidbey is no longer under consideration for recreational business activities (RBA).

At least, for now.

The scenic waterfront park in Oak Harbor didn’t make the final cut of state parks being considered for the proposal, a controversial idea Washington State Parks is exploring that would allow private investors to help develop visitor amenities in an effort to provide additional revenue for a cash-strapped state parks system.

It was quietly announced in January that Joseph Whidbey was one of 11 candidates being considered for the concept. That created an uproar among park users and led to a gathering of 80 people at the Coupeville Recreation Hall in March who grumbled about the idea at a public meeting hosted by state parks.

That displeasure, among other reasons, resonated with agency staff, which ultimately pared the candidate pool to two final park sites in the Puget Sound region.

Only Fort Flagler State Park on Marrowstone Island and Millersylvania State Park, south of Olympia, were selected as pilot candidates to pursue the idea.

State parks staff used public feedback to help make that decision prior to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission meeting in Moses Lake Thursday. Parks staff also recommended no action be taken until the concept was explored more deeply.

“We decided we really needed time,” said Virginia Painter, agency spokeswoman. “Let’s pause. Let’s really go through this and make sure we’ve got definitions that make sense. From our point of view, this isn’t really different than what we already do with concessions.”

She likened the idea to Sun Lakes State Park, which has the second biggest concession area in the parks system. “Well, that’s an RBA,” she added.

According to the proposal, 60 of Joseph Whidbey State Park’s 206 total acres could have been used for privately-financed recreational developments that might have included up to 50 cabins, a lodge-type structure with food services and new day-use facilities.

The public sentiment was strongly opposed, said Painter, citing that public concern and issues with public utilities derailed Joseph Whidbey’s chances of being considered as a pilot candidate.

She said the sites that didn’t make the cut would, for now, be “put to the side” while the focus goes to furthering the concept at Fort Flagler and Millersylvania state parks.

There is an interest in updating and possibly adding buildings at Fort Flagler to accommodate overnight guests and possibly creating a store, Painter said.

Most of the state parks under consideration for RBAs had some level of support, but not Joseph Whidbey, Painter said.

“We got a sense that the tone of this one was different,” she said.