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Planning takes over county parks

Past discussions that unearthed interesting and innovative ideas about the future of the Island County Parks Department came full circle Monday.

The Board of Island County Commissioners officially transferred the parks department from the auspices of the General Services Administration to the Planning and Community Development Department.

Planning Director Jeff Tate initially approached GSA Director Betty Kemp to discuss the state of the parks department. Although he was not looking to expand his job description, through ensuing conversations, the planning and parks coupling began to make sense.

“It should be a fluid transition,” Tate said. “Some of what we do crosses over. Through the parks we can help with salmon recovery and restoration projects.”

County Commissioner John Dean said the move could appear, on the surface, a bit odd, as most counties have stand-alone parks departments for a good reason: parks need to be a high priority for any forward-thinking community that grows as much as Island County.

“Yet, I think temporarily putting parks under planning is going to be a good interim fit for us,” he said. “Day-to-day management has continued strong under the able leadership of county parks staff, but we need to pay more attention to long-term acquisitions, trails development, and professional long-term park management plans. These are some of the tasks Planning Director Jeff Tate and his staff are really very good at. And park needs are going to fit nicely with some of the open space protection and aquatic restoration work planning already does.”

Former Parks Superintendent Terri Arnold, who accepted a director position with the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District in April, also juggled property management and served as Conservation Futures program coordinator. Tate’s department will only absorb the parks.

With 54 actively managed properties totaling 1,400 acres, the new undertaking is daunting. Tate, however, is excited about the change and eager to conquer the learning curve.

“I’ll be working backwards. We have a fantastic existing park staff and they’ve been training me already,” Tate said.

The planning director plans to begin touring properties on Camano and Whidbey islands this month. Prioritization will be the next step.

“Some of these parks are actively used,” Tate said. “Like Ala Spit or Holmes Harbor. And some are vacant.”

As a regulatory department, planning is often fitted with the black hat and tagged the bad guy. Tate said shouldering the new responsibilities will create the opportunity to practice what planning preaches.

“We’re always telling people what they can or cannot do on their land,” he said. “We own a lot of property as a county and we should be doing what we tell others to do.”

Tate’s vision includes developing a county-wide comprehensive parks plan. Scrutinizing each facility will yield separate and unique pieces of a puzzle.

“I think every park has a different answer,” he said, adding that by 2009, each site should have its own management plan. “For the 50 plus properties, we’ll develop an outreach strategy for each site and then out to the community.”

Public input will be crucial in ascertaining what residents want out of each park. The county must be good neighbors while catering to the desires of park users.

“We need to strike a balance,” Tate said. “We’ll start with the more heavily-used parks and move down the prioritization list.”

Following Arnold’s departure, former parks superintendent Lee McFarland was coerced out of retirement for a short period of time. In addition to learning from park staff, he will utilize the institutional knowledge McFarland and Kemp have amassed.

Tate will ultimately hire a new parks superintendent, but until he has gained the experience and knowledge he feels is necessary to oversee the department, he will carry the title and duties himself.

“It’s important to have hands-on knowledge,” he said. “I also want to build a network or core of people. A lot of people have an interest in parks.”

Through the Resource Enhancement Program, Tate said his department should be able to complement parks’ stand-alone budget in the form of grants, freeing up money to be used elsewhere.

He will keep planning and parks wholly separate. His staff, however, many of whom are outdoor-minded, recreation enthusiasts, can be used as extra eyes and ears as they observe the conditions and goings-on at the facilities.

“That will serve as a complement,” Tate said.

Dealing with parks will be a refreshing change, the planning director said.

“Everybody can get behind parks,” he said. “It’s a positive starting point. And it’s a positive thing for my staff to get behind too.”

Dean said success will also be contingent upon the commissioners paying continued attention to parks and ensuring cross-departmental communication.

“The key is going to be for county commissioners to keep parks on the front burner this year and in future years, and assure strong coordination with other departments, particularly public works,” he said. “Once planning has done its ‘magic,’ I can foresee a day when we will want, and need, to make parks its own department, much like we did with human services this week.”

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