Draft House budget bad news for South Whidbey campground grant request

For those on South Whidbey who enjoy camping, the Washington State House Capital Budget proposal will disappoint in its current form.

The recently released budget proposal doesn’t include grant monies for a number of projects seeking funding through the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, or WWRP. That includes the half million requested by the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District for development of a campground at Community Park. District officials aren’t giving up hope, however.

“It’s important to keep in mind this is a proposal, and not final,” Parks Director Doug Coutts said. “I’m not overly concerned yet, but it’s definitely something we’ll be closely monitoring.”

He added that while the Community Park campground isn’t funded through the House’s proposal, the Senate’s proposed budget would fully fund phase one of campground construction. Coutts was clear the legislature is still in talks to finalize the budget, and added the district has been in touch with local state representatives.

“We’ve put the bug in their ear and I know they’re working diligently on it,” Coutts said. “It’s too early to know what will happen.”

The WWRP grants are a state program that provides funding for land protection and outdoor recreation. A total of 15 requests were cut, representing about $80 million. That includes $516,621 applied for by the parks district to fund phase 1 of the campground’s construction.

Funding for a second phase is unplanned, but will likely also rely on state grant funding.

The cuts are a concern for wildlife and outdoors advocate groups such as the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. They say the removal of land acquisition projects, which all 15 cut requests were classified as, from the proposed budget should be a concern for those who don’t want to see land redeveloped into condos or strip malls. Cutting all acquisition projects also went against what the coalition says is a proven funding allocation formula that doesn’t “pick and choose” what kind of projects to fund. The coalition says that’s unfair.

“The House chose to really ignore that criteria, which was based on objective factors and a tried ranking system,” Danica Johnson, the coalition’s communications coordinator, said. “We feel the integrity of WWRP was challenged by these actions.”

The cuts from the House’s proposed budget would also leave South Whidbey with only one camping option: the fairgrounds. South Whidbey State Park closed campsites in 2015 due to tree rot, and was touting the Community Park campgrounds to soften the loss.

Representatives Norma Smith, R-Clinton, and Dave Hayes, R-Camano, both penned a letter of support for the proposed campgrounds back in August. According to Smith, both supported the campground project and will continue to advocate for state dollars. Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor has also voiced support for the project, Coutts said.

Smith says she is optimistic that the campground project’s funding would be restored. The grant projects were cut from the House budget due to “state-wide concern” about the expense of land acquisition projects when the state is struggling to maintain property it already owns. She supports the cuts, but says the campground shouldn’t have been included.

“We need to ensure that there is adequate funding for stewardship of these lands acquired,” Smith said. “The campgrounds are a different situation though, because it’s on local lands with a tax base. That’s why I’m optimistic, although I can’t make promises at this point.”