Commissioners adopt updated housing element

The Island County Board of Commissioners has unanimously adopted the housing element of the comprehensive plan, after more than a year of work to update the document.

The element is meant to guide the county’s approach to housing and policies in the future.

Commissioners expressed at a recent meeting that the document struck a good balance between public comment, research and the board’s policy preferences.

“These are some of the greatest tension points in our community,” said Commissioner Jill Johnson.

She said it’s difficult to provide for affordability within the county while not attracting too many owners of second homes or impacting the rural character. She said the element’s “clear goals and policies” are a “step in the right direction.”

Many of the updated element’s goals and policies focus on allowing for a greater diversity in housing types while preserving the “character and vitality” of neighborhoods. State law requires the document also include reasonable measures besides expanding urban growth areas to address housing capacity issues.

Some of the measures included are to allow for slight increases in density or automatic density increases that can be triggered by growth rates, infrastructure availability and housing inventory changes.

Other potential policies could include zoning to remove barriers to adding accessory dwelling units or backyard cottage housing, allowing town homes in low-density residential areas and providing more flexibility on ground-floor commercial requirements.

Commissioner Rick Hannold said he believes the element adequately addresses housing across the spectrum of price points — from streamlining permitting and making development more affordable, to providing measures to protect and promote subsidized housing.

“There is a genuine need for subsidized housing for those just starting out, ” he said “… There are those out there that need a hand up sometimes.”

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the timing to look at housing policies was important now that development has picked up recently after stalling during the recession.

“The dynamics are ripe for us to take a fresh look at this,” she said.

During the meeting, Bill Massey, a member of the North Whidbey Affordable Housing Task Force, complimented the year’s work done by the planning department and planning commission, but said there’s more to do.

“All we have now are goals and aspirations,” he said to the commissioners. “We need to convert those to ordinances.”

Full document can be found at