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Spina wins in barn battle

Central Whidbey resident Paula Spina will be able to host up to 40 large events a year, and parties can last until 11 p.m. on weekends, at her newly established rural event center.

During a hearing Monday, Island County commissioners largely sided with Spina and overruled part of a hearing examiner’s decision and the planning staff’s recommendation to put restrictions on the use of her property. Spina had appealed many of the conditions of the site plan approval that designated the historic Crockett Farm Barn as a rural event center. The commissioners, in a quasi-judicial role, listened to the appeal two weeks ago and rendered their oral decision Monday.

But several neighbors are not happy and at least one is crying foul. James Moore, who was an intervener in the appeal along with his wife, Sue Symons, said he plans to work with his attorney to see if the decision can be appealed to the superior court.

“The worst case scenario played out before our eyes yesterday,” Moore said. “The commissioners completely overturned the hearing examiner’s decision, the recommendations of their own planning department, and the HRC (Historic Review Committee), an abuse of power and a slap in the face to their own professional people who are trained in such matters.”

Hearing Examiner Michael Bobbink approved Spina’s proposal to use the 1895 Crocket Farm Barn as a rural event center, but he set a number of conditions that Spina appealed to the commissioners. Her main concern was the limit of 30 “event days” a year, though only events with more than 50 attendees were subject to the limit.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson led the discussions and the other commissioners ultimately agreed with all of her suggestions. She said that the rural event center clearly had noise and other impacts on the surrounding neighbors, but that many of Bobbink’s conditions were “not reasonable,” “not sufficiently justified” or simply “odd.”

Price Johnson suggested increasing the limit from 30 to 40 events a year. She pointed out that Spina’s business plan stated that she would need from 40 to 50 events a year for the event center to remain financially viable.

Price Johnson also suggested changing the definition of events affected by the 40-a-year limit. She said events, not “event days,” should count toward the limit. She said some events, like an art show, can last a number of days. She recommended that one event can last up to three continuous days.

Also, Price Johnson suggested increasing the number of attendees required to be counted as an event from 50 to 75 people. She said that’s what the county code states.

“It seems incongruent for us to hold a different standard for this project,” she said.

Moreover, she said the cumulative noise impacts on neighbors aren’t directly related to the closing time and that a 10 p.m. closing time was a little severe. She urged her fellow commissioners to push the closing time to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. And she suggested deleting the condition that limited events to just three weekends out of a month.

The only change Commissioner Angie Homola put forward was that all outdoor activity at the barn should cease a half an hour before closing time.

In the end, the commissioners agreed with all of Price Johnson’s suggestions, along with Homola’s idea, and instructed the planning staff to create a document reflecting the decision. They will formally vote on it next Monday.

Afterward, Spina said she was pleased that the commissioners acted reasonably, though she would have preferred to be allowed to have 50 large events a year.

“It’s not everything we wanted, but we’ll make it work,” Spina said.

Moore was not happy. He attended the hearing with his attorney and a couple of neighbors. Afterward, he said Price Johnson and Homola should have recused themselves because they received donations from Spina in the last election. According to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission website, Price Johnson received $2,000 from Spina and $100 from Moore and Symons. Homola received $3,500 from Spina.

“If you follow the money trail, they look very compromised,” he said. “It looks like you write a big check and the politicians do what you want.”

Both Price Johnson and Homola previously acknowledged that they had received contributions from people involved in the appeal, but they said the donations will in no way affect their decision making.

But in addition, Moore claims Homola made prejudicial remarks about the case to Coupeville Councilman Tom Tack prior to hearing the appeal. Again, he said Homola should have recused herself.

“She put a stain on her integrity and she compromised the entire board of commissioners,” he said.

In an interview, Tack explained that prior to a meeting on June 3, which was minutes after the hearing examiner’s hearing was over, Homola made a comment that Bobbink had a terrible tone and was “totally out of line” in the way he treated the speakers who supported the applicant. According to Tack, Homola went on to say that Bobbink’s contract is ending and that she’s not interested in renewing his contract.

“It totally left me with the impression that she was showing favoritism,” he said.

Homola, however, said she wasn’t even at the hearing examiner’s hearing and that someone she saw in the hallway had complained about Bobbink’s rude tone. She said she was just commenting on what she had been told. Also, she pointed out that Bobbink’s contract had already expired at that point, the commissioners had publicly said they were looking for an alternative hearing examiner and the contract was already up for bids. At that point there was no decision by the hearing examiner and also no appeal.

“I don’t think that would be cause to think I prejudged a decision,” she said. “I actually think the hearing examiner did a pretty good job.”

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