Commissioners mull $4 million boat ramp for Robinson Beach

County commissioners are considering a costly solution for a critical South Whidbey boat launch.

Island County commissioners are currently considering a costly solution for a critical South Whidbey boat launch.

A proposal for a $4 million elevated boat ramp has been floated for Robinson Beach to replace the old ramp, which has been sanded in for the past four years. The recommendation comes from an evaluation completed last year by Coastal Geologic Services.

Prior to 2020, the Robinson Beach boat ramp in Mutiny Bay was regularly maintained by county staff, who cleared away the sand that piled up on the launch. The 300-foot beach was donated by Frank Robinson in 2013 for public use.

Neighbors of the area have been critical of the county moving the sand onto their property, while others have pointed out that access to Mutiny Bay is crucial, especially in an emergency such as the catastrophic seaplane crash of 2022 that killed 10 people. Yet county officials have insisted that continuing to maintain the existing ramp is an untenable situation that is exacerbated by the tides and rising sea level.

The issue has resurfaced in recent weeks, as opponents and proponents have regularly commented during meetings of the Board of Island County Commissioners.

Last week, the commissioners discussed the proposed construction of an extended boat ramp, which would cost over $4 million and take an estimated two to three years to complete. The board is also looking at upgrading the Ustalady boat ramp on Camano Island at the price of $303,000.

Where to get the funding, however, is another challenge.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon wondered if the Port of South Whidbey, which owns 25% of the Robinson Beach boat ramp facility, might be interested in contributing funds, but county staff said the port is not interested in putting money into the project. In the agreement between the two entities, the county is responsible for providing maintenance of the facility.

Public Works Director Fred Snoderly told the commissioners that one possible source of funding lies in a Recreation Conservation Office Boating Infrastructure Grant. The grant totals up to $1 million with a 25% match from the county and is awarded every two years.

Another source may be the use of real estate excise tax – known as REET – funds, but Commissioner Jill Johnson pointed out that they are “leveraged out pretty aggressively” and won’t be available. But if the county waits until it has the money, she said, it’s going to take a couple of years to get the permit to do the work.

“Because Washington state allows for privately owned shoreline and because we have limited public access points, I think it’s incumbent upon us to preserve those and invest in those,” she said.

Commissioner Janet St. Clair agreed that the REET fund is “heavily pressured” right now. She added that the county has had Cornet Bay boating improvements in its capital plan for a long time and asked that it still be considered a priority along with the other boat ramps. Snoderly assured her that it was still being pursued.

Johnson wondered if boat ramps could be considered tourism-related and thus eligible for economic development grants. St. Clair said there were also marine access grants.

Johnson warned against the county agreeing to maintain land in perpetuity, as was the case for Robinson Beach.

“We take things and we make promises that we don’t have the ability to deliver on multi-generationally, or even board to board,” she said.

The commissioners agreed to move forward to find the funding for the two boat ramp projects.