For 30 years, one group on Whidbey Island has served as a watchdog for the environment.
Steve Erickson and Marianne Edain, founders of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, or WEAN, have left their fingerprints on the Island County development code and the land they worked to protect. They kept watchful eyes on rules and regulations governing land use to make sure the environment is being protected. They studied countless documents and spoke at a multitude of hearings.
“If you want a habitable planet, you’ve got to keep your back yard habitable,” Erickson said at WEAN’s annual meeting in July, which marked three decades of advocacy. “The planet’s capacity for supporting all vertebrates is declining fast. Those in authority are just kicking the can down the road by not making the difficult decisions that need to be made.”
To the annoyance of many county officials, developers and farmers, Erickson and Edain have never been afraid of taking legal action to challenge the rules. The self-taught legal advocates had a habit of winning, especially in the years when the county’s comprehensive code was being written with the help of a very expensive land-use attorney.
“I think the decisions of the Growth Management Hearings Board and the courts speak for themselves,” Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said. “WEAN has definitely had an impact on how Island County regulates development.”
Edain said WEAN is funded by its members and is fortunate to have supportive “enviro-mafia” attorneys who don’t demand immediate fee payments.
The organization, Edain explained, started in response to Georgia Pacific’s sale of 17,000 acres of forested land, including 2,600 acres on Whidbey, to a real estate development company. She said the properties were considered not profitable for large-scale forestry.
“We are researchers by nature,” she said. “We found out about the situation when people went for a walk in the woods and found out the woods were closed or no longer there. We learned very quickly about proper forestry practices.”
At the time, the development company claimed Island County had no control over development, according to Edain. She said WEAN achieved a negotiated settlement requiring Island County to protect critical areas such as wetlands prior to development.
WEAN was front and center during the county’s protracted process of adopting a comprehensive plan under the state’s Growth Management Act, which was passed 29 years ago. The group challenged a provision allowing three-and-a-half dwelling units per acre on land along shores. A hearing examiner invalidated the high-density allowance. WEAN also challenged and won a case against wetland logging in the Oak Harbor area.
Well over 100 stories in the South Whidbey Record involving WEAN over the last 10 years alone illustrate the breadth of the group’s involvement. The group challenged the Langley Passage development, won a 15-year battle with the county over the critical areas ordinance, spoke against a utility district’s proposal for a tidal turbine off Whidbey and challenged the county’s fish and wildlife regulations.
The group sided with Island County over the proposed Wright’s Crossing development, the Wonn Road beach access controversy and a ban on fish pens.
Erickson and Edain worked for three decades to protect flora and fauna, including beavers and the Western toad.
WEAN has its detractors who question the group’s methods.
“WEAN has played a large role in putting environmental issues in the center of policy discussions in Island County,” Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson said, “but their extremist approach has also marginalized their voice and makes them impossibly difficult to deal with and has ultimately lost them a lot of credibility.”
Banks said litigation is very time-consuming and expensive.
“And even when they lose, WEAN has had a large impact on the workload of the prosecutor’s office and the Department of Planning and Community Development,” he said.
Currently, WEAN and a Snohomish County development firm are disputing a 27-acre tract on the east side of Cultus Bay Road. The organization has campaigned for years for the enforcement of county regulations on logging and development. The dispute centered on differences between state and local regulations governing the intent of the landowner and how soon development can take place after logging.
Yet the nonprofit group does more than just advocate for land-use rules and the enforcement of regulations. WEAN continues its efforts to educate more people about global climate change and support environmental legislation at higher levels of government, Edain said,
“It’s the bottom line issue of the day,” said Edain. “There are no jobs or ecosystems on a dead planet. But right now, we’re rearranging the deck chairs. Resources are finite and a lot of growth assumptions have to change.”