Growth looms large in county primary

"Marvin Koorn, a long-time North Whidbey roads supervisor for the county's Public Works Department, and Mac McDowell, a professional engineer and two-term county commissioner, are both trying to be the Republican torch-bearer in the race for commissioner from the 2nd District. Voters will decide between them in a Republican primary Sept. 19. The winner will take on Democrat Lynne Wilcox in November. Last Saturday, the News-Times looked at the candidates' positions on money, morale and taxes. Today we ask them about growth, transportation, public safety and the role of government.Rapid growth in Island County's population and the ongoing development of its land have been, and continue to be, the source of much debate among political leaders, environmentalists, developers, property owners, farmers and various rights groups. It will undoubtedly be a key issue in the race for Island County Commissioner as well. Democrat Lynne Wilcox, who will face either Republican incumbent Mac McDowell or Republican challenger Marvin Koorn, has already made growth management a focal point of her campaign, saying its time to change what she considers the pro-development policies of the past.County residents have both enjoyed the freedoms and paid the price for what amounted to years of minimally controlled growth, platting, construction and virtually no enforcement of development laws.Prior to 1984, when the county adopted its first set of real development ordinances, property owners were able to do pretty much whatever they wanted, building their homes along nearly all of the county's picturesque shoreline, filling wetlands, erecting bulkheads, creating uncontrolled runoff, allowing livestock in streams and constructing businesses in non-urban areas.Even after 1984, with little enforcement in place, much of this development continued.Though the debate rages on as to whether such development is good or bad, the fact is that nearly all of these practices already, or soon will be, illegal - made so by federal, state and local laws as a way to get a handle on growth and ongoing environmental damage. Pressures for more regulations lie in wait for whoever becomes commissioner.Candidate Koorn said growth management isn't about thinking what might have been, it's about looking forward from today.I think we've lost the small community atmosphere. I like the rural environment but that's past. We now have to deal with what we are, said Koorn. I don't want to see us become Lynnwood, but you can't go back to the way it was. There are days when I say blow up the bridge and sink the ferries, and there are other days when I'm thankful for what we have.Koorn said he is not tied to either the development or environmental communities.I'm open to trying to meld the different opinions of how Island County should be, he said.But Koorn has not had to lay his own opinion on the line like McDowell has for the past seven and a half years - taking both the praise and the heat it has often generated. Even while adopting development-limiting laws in order to comply with the state's Growth Management Act, McDowell has held firmly to the cause of the property owner.Yes, I believe strongly in property rights, he said, adding that some of the new limits being imposed are too restrictive and come too fast. Change is inevitable. I don't resist change. But there are degrees of change or speed at which you do it.Koorn said he believes the strong divisions between county leadership and environmentalists have many county residents concerned.It's a concern that the ordinary people aren't being heard, he said. I think the mood is that they're ready for a change.But McDowell said his firm stance helps even out the environmental debate, which could otherwise easily slip away from property owners.There has to be a balance between property rights and environmental issues. I think I bring that balance, he said.TRANSPORTATIONAs a member of the Island Transit Board, McDowell said he's been won over by the county's fare-free bus system.When I first came to office I couldn't understand why we had free buses and why they weren't always full, McDowell said. But they get cars off the road. Even if you don't use the bus, it's taking away the congestion that would be there otherwise. I think that's good.McDowell also supports the fare-free concept. He said transit needs to encourage as much ridership as possible and studies of fare-based systems have convinced him that ridership declines as fares are introduced.Koorn isn't as sure as McDowell about the value of Island Transit.I think it is very important for the elderly and handicapped and people who don't have another way to get around. I'm not sure how important it is for the general public, he said. Koorn added that he has not been convinced that Island Transit should reinstate its service to Skagit County.PUBLIC SAFETYIsland County has the lowest crime rate per capita of any county in the state. McDowell credits at least some of that to a strong county Sheriff's Department and Prosecutor's Office that he has helped build.He said there are now 38 percent more deputies working in the Sheriff's Department than when he took office. There has also been a 67 percent increase in the Prosecutor's budget McDowell said, adding that both increases are greater than the rate of the county's population growth.Koorn, however, says citizens still have concerns about safety in their communities and the number of police on duty.If you're the one who has to wait 20 minutes or 30 minutes for a deputy, it doesn't do any good to be told that crime in your neighborhood is down, he said.McDowell acknowledges that the current number of deputies still lags behind the ideal of one deputy every 1,000 residents, but he said county taxpayers can't be asked to cover what that would cost.We're 13 deputies short, said McDowell. But that's $600,000. As long as (the number of deputies) keeps increasing faster than the population, we'll get there someday.GOVERNMENTIt's customary for Republicans to rally around the concept of smaller government, and neither Koorn or McDowell break with tradition.I think government tends to be more intrusive in our lives, said McDowell. Government is there to help the truly needful and for law and order. Local government needs to have some reins on it.Koorn said he also sees a government role in economic development.We can't rely on NAS Whidbey for the only economic base North Whidbey has. But we have to be careful of what we bring in, Koorn said. He added that the county has little in the way of jobs to keep young people on the island and noted that all three of his own children have left Whidbey to follow their careers.McDowell wants to push for at least one new social program if he's re-elected. He would like to see the county start a visiting nurse program for children from prenatal to three years old. "

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