Coupeville group says 'OH-OH' to growth

"With three seats up for grabs on the Coupeville Town Council Nov. 2, the makeup of the five-member body could change considerably overnight. Regardless of who wins, though, the issues they face will remain the same: Water, sewers, growth and rural preservation.And the OH-OH group will likely be there.The OH-OHs — a self-described political watchdog group with a name that sounds like trouble — are more often referred to than seen in person. But, even though their roster is anything but public, they have established a reputation for challenging the consensus among Coupeville’s political leaders and questioning their decisions.Two of the group’s spokespeople, Ken Pickard and David Medley, say the group’s aim is straightforward: to protect the historic little town from the effects of growth, and a town administration they see as too pro-growth for its citizenry’s taste.“I think Nancy’s (Mayor Conard) pro-growth ... and I don’t think the majority of the council has the courage to oppose growth,” Pickard said. “But I think the majority of the people in the town would be happy if Coupeville froze growth right now.”That view, and the OH-OHs’ common means of expressing it — since their founding in 1998, they have been more likely to work through the courts, or through newspaper ads, than to debate in person at Town Council meetings — wears pretty thin with town Mayor Nancy Conard.Conard said she views herself as “pro-management,’’ not pro-growth. And the idea that she and the council move in lockstep, she said, is “highly insulting to the council. The people who do attend meetings regularly would see that the council discusses issues in depth and decisions are not always unanimous.’’Medley, on the other hand, says the divisions go deeper than simple disagreements on single issues. He says he joined OH-OH more than a year ago because he didn’t feel that he and the town’s leadership shared a vision of what the town should be.“I didn’t like what was happening,’’ said Medley, secretary of the organization. “The town was using the word progress a lot.”“It seems like if you use the word progress, growth is OK,” Medley said. “But progress always seems to relate to more money, more growth, more infrastructure, bigger, better. We moved here because it was relatively quiet. The very reason we moved here is what people want to destroy because they want to make Coupeville bigger, better.... progressive.”Pickard, OH-OH’s founder and chief lightning rod, said that as a whole, he thinks Coupeville’s leaders are well-intentioned. But he doesn’t think their interests and decisions always reflect the interests of the town’s residents. Pickard said his perspective is tempered from having been born and raised in Coupeville and seeing it start to change in the 1980’s, as more traffic and development found its way to its quiet streets and open spaces.His, and others’, discontentment with growth came to head in the summer of 1998, when Oak Harbor developer Rick Almberg applied for a zoning changes in Coupeville’s Comprehensive Plan so he could build a 100-unit assisted senior care home. Believing it was too big, out of scale to meet the needs of the town and would have placed too great a burden on the town’s water supply and sewer system, Pickard formed OH-OH. The group raised money, circulated questionnaires and took out ads in the Coupeville Examiner. The ads and questionnaires urged town residents to attend council meetings and express their views on downsizing the proposed assisted living home, as well and other issues related to growth and water.Seventy-nine questionaires came back and 90 percent of the respondents opposed the zoning change.When the Council voted on the proposed zoning change it scaled down the project to 50 beds and Almberg decided not to build.Pickard credits OH-OH with with getting word out, drumming up interest and eventually, preventing the construction of a 100-bed assisted care development.“If it wasn’t for OH-OH, it would have been approved. It would have been rubber-stamped by the council,” he said.Conard said she has offered to meet with OH-OH’s membership, but has gotten no response to her offer.Meanwhile, she bristles at the idea that she and the council are out of step with what most Coupeville residents want.In the first place, she said, the town has no legal right to stop growth entirely, but it does “have a responsibility to manage the town regardless of whether there’s growth.’’The idea that her administration is not doing that to most people’s satisfaction, she said, is somewhat insulting to the town’s voters.“The people who are on the council and I are elected by the community and I think that the community is responsible enough to make changes if they don’t think we are properly representing their views,” Conard said.Conard added a caveat.“However, administratively, we try to be aware of how the council thinks and we propose issues we believe will be approved,” she said.Pickard said the group is now quite small — about 30 members — and had been quiet of late. Pickard also said he is weary of being the pointman in a fight to try keep Coupeville from getting more developed, more slick and more crowded. “For a long time, I’ve felt like a fish swimming upstream,” Pickard said.Nevertheless, he said, quiet should not be confused with finished.“We might be quiet but we’re still closely watching town government,” he said. “And we’ll activate overnight when the need arises.“It’s our government, it’s our town and people have to be involved,” Pickard said. “In my view, if you have a town you care about, you need a watchdog group.”"

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