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West Beach speed debated

Noting that opinions were “all over the road,” Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell said he’s willing to work to find compromises with West Beach Road residents who attended a sheriff’s meeting Tuesday night to discuss speed limits.

Nearly 40 people showed up at the community meeting which Sheriff Mike Hawley set up in response to a citizen petition asking for the speed limit to be reduced on a stretch of West Beach Road from 50 to 40 mph.

More than 150 residents signed the petition, which also asks for the intersection at West Beach and Fort Nugent roads be switched from a one-way to a three-way stop to slow traffic.

But residents who spoke at the meeting had all sorts of ideas about what the problems and solutions are. The people with the greatest concerns seemed to be those who have trouble getting onto the road from their driveways, particularly at the top of the hill in the Even’ Down area. They said the speeds were simply too high to enter the road safely.

Bill Boylon explained that he has a home office that faces the road and he’s able to watch traffic all day long. While he said most drivers are law abiding, he added that there are a couple motorcyclists who consistently speed. Because of black ice and other road problems, he said the road would still be dangerous even if the speed was reduced to 40 mph.

“I’m here to tell you,” he said, “those two motorcyclists or a couple of cars are going to kill kids waiting for the bus someday.”

Marv Klein stressed that the area of West Beach Road between Sunset Beach and Hastie Lake Road is a high-density neighborhood where maybe 1,000 people live. “If you lifted the area and transported east to the city,” he said, “they wouldn’t let us go 30 miles per hour. The population density is just too great.”

Romilly Cassida, the resident who started the petition drive with a friend, explained that she did her own study of speeds in the area with a speed reader board the Sheriff’s Office stuck in front of her home. She hid in the bushes and recorded the speeds of cars.

Cassida said she found that 30 to 35 percent of drivers were speeding. “That’s not good,” she said.

On the other hand, several residents said reducing the speed limit isn’t the answer. Tad Gordon said the county shouldn’t punish “the innocent” by reducing the speed limit for everyone. “If we have a problem with people disobeying the law,” he said, “it’s an enforcement issue.”

Doris Campbell said she wants the current speed limit to remain. She works in the medical field and often needs to get places in a hurry. “I really appreciate having West Beach as a reasonable alternative to Highway 20,” she said.

Bill Oakes, county public works director, explained that the engineering department is continuing to study the traffic on West Beach, but he said preliminary data shows that there is no need to lower the speed limit.

He said the national standard is to set the speed limit at the speed 85 percent of the drivers are traveling at.

Sheriff Hawley told the audience that traffic is becoming a greater and greater problem as the island population grows.

“I live in Freeland,” he said, “and I would never get to work if I stopped every violator on the way. ... I used to come to meetings like this and people talked about teenage drug use or crime, but now it’s traffic, traffic, everywhere it’s traffic.”

Yet Hawley explained that he simply doesn’t have enough deputies to consistently patrol roads for speeders. Only two deputies are on duty at a time in the entire north end of the island.

“Our guys are just running from call to call to call,” he said, “and really don’t have time for traffic unless it’s a real hot spot like West Beach Road.”

At the end of the meeting, Commissioner McDowell addressed the crowd and thanked the residents for suggesting a wide range of ideas for making the road safer.

He said he would ask county staff to look at the suggestions, such as turning the hill into a no-passing zone, putting up signs warning of “hidden driveway,” placing more speed readers boards around and building bus enclosures for kids.

But McDowell left the question of whether to reduce speed limits open.

“We have to find a compromise that is right for everybody...” McDowell said. “Clearly there’s no clear-cut answers, even from this group.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-1166.

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