An overnight camping event that aims to bring young families and nature together is being held on South Whidbey this weekend over the vocal objections of Maxwelton residents and an environmental advocacy group.
Island County Planning and Community Development recently granted organizers of Family Forest Fest a temporary use permit to hold the three-day event Friday, Saturday and Sunday on an undeveloped 20-acre parcel on Wildes Road in Clinton. The permit, which allows up to 500 people to participate, came with a host of mitigating conditions.
But critics say they’re not enough and have vehemently protested the proposal.
“We got the whole neighborhood together, it was almost unanimous; we thought our concerns would have been heard and they weren’t,” said Dana Linn, one of those protesting the event. “It was so disheartening.”
The family-oriented event, a festival organizers say will involve largely young parents with 1- to 3-year-old children, has generated quite the controversy in the small Maxwelton neighborhood. Stirring strong emotions over the potential of fire and environmental destruction, nearby property owners have lobbied police and fire officials, enlisted the help of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network and taken up social media campaigns against the event.
Event organizers say it got way out of hand. At one point, neighbors were reportedly taking pictures of people on the event property and threatening to report them to authorities, and a Facebook incident where a man made a reference to a loaded shotgun resulted in a visit by local police.
“He’s sorta said it tongue-in-cheek, but you don’t do that when you’re talking about children,” said Shanti Hodges, a founder of the event.
Hodges created Hike it Baby, a national organization that gets people out of their houses and onto trails. From it stemmed Family Forest Fest; again, the idea is to introduce families to nature, but this time overnight. Many of the young parents involved have never done it before, and the event is basically a workshop that shows them how to set up a tent and be comfortable in the outdoors.
“I know that sounds shocking but it’s more common than you’d think,” she said.
The first event was held last year in Oregon and it came to Whidbey at the invitation of a Coupeville member of Hike it Baby, Sharlie Tassie. Tassie owns the property in Maxwelton, Hodges said.
According to Hodges, they were surprised when neighbors objected to the proposal and attempted to do some damage control with public outreach. She claims those efforts were largely rejected, with people literally closing doors in their faces.
Neighbors, however, see it differently. Linn said she only learned about the project while walking her dog — she was shocked to hear that so many people would be camping so close to her home and that event leaders didn’t meet with the community first. Looking into the event’s details, she and others became worried about a host of issues. Fire was a big one. The campers are novices, and an out of control blaze could threaten nearby homes.
Traffic noise was another issue as are environmental concerns. The property contains a wetland and it initially appeared in planning documents that it would be threatened by vehicle and foot traffic, according to Marianne Edain of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network.
Hodges said environmental stewardship is one of the values the event tries to teach, so it agreed to put up a fence around the wetland. A park ranger will incorporate into planned workshops the importance of protecting wetlands and the role they play in ecology. Organizers also endorse and teach the “leave no trace” model of camping, Hodges said.
As for the threat of fire, permit conditions required the property’s fields be mowed and soaked with water prior to the event; large tanks of water will also be on hand.
Linn said they still aren’t comfortable with the function being so close to home and hope that it doesn’t return.
“The idea is darling but it’s a bad place to have it,” she said. “It’s a dead-end road, and we just can’t imagine 500 people on it.”
It’s more like 300 people, according to Hodges, referring to expected attendance. And residents don’t have to worry about them coming back.
“We’re sorry we created so much controversy in the neighborhood, we certainly wouldn’t have done it if we’d known it would create this kind of vibe,” she said.
“We’re not going to do it here again,” she said.