Camp Casey plans allowed over protests

A scheduled 15-minute public comment period turned into two and a half hours before Island County commissioners Monday approved a Special Review District for Camp Casey, a major step in Seattle Pacific University’s plan to expand the conference facility.

While commissioners told the standing-room-only crowd that the time for public input was past, and that public planning commission hearings held in June had been sparsely attended, many in attendance Monday said they had just recently learned about the plan to cut part of the forest at Camp Casey to make room for more facilities.

Because of the large turnout, commissioners moved the item to last on the agenda, to allow ample time for comments.

The Master Plan submitted by SPU as a condition of being granted the Special Review District outlines a plan to extend a road into the 43-acre forest and build up to 50 cabins and several other buildings. Twenty-five of the cabins would replace existing campsites, and 25 would be new construction.

Two and a half acres marked for new construction would be in the National Heritage Site on the north end of the property.

People in attendance were concerned that granting the Special Review District amendment to the county Comprehensive Plan would give SPU carte blanche for developing Camp Casey, but commissioners and Jeff Tate, assistant director of Planning and Community Development, repeatedly assured them that was not the case.

“No regulations will be usurped or undermined,” Tate said. “Every phase of the project will require permits and approval.”

He noted that SPU could expand their facilities under the current “existing use” provision of the Rural Zoning it now falls under.

“The Special Review District puts parameters on expansion,” Tate said.

Darrel Hines, SPU associate vice president, portrayed the university as a good neighbor and “good steward of the land.”

He said while the Casey Conference Center has traditionally been geared to young people who don’t mind dormitory-type facilities and “gang showers,” the university has in mind to attract a “more mature audience,” in hopes of generating more revenue.

“These are legitimate concerns,” he said of the opposition. “We hope our track record will help.”

The three main areas of concern expressed by those addressing the commissioners were the cutting of trees, access to water, and increased traffic.

Steve Erickson, of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, expressed doubt about SPU’s claim of being a good neighbor.

“Clearing five acres of an irreplaceable ancient forest does not exhibit environmental sensitivity,” Erickson said, reading from a prepared statement. “SPU should make up its mind whether it’s just another black-mailing earth-despoiling developer or an environmentally conscious steward that wants to be a good neighbor.”

Erickson and several others told commissioners that cutting trees in the interior of 40 acres would leave the remaining trees vulnerable to being blown down by high winds that whip the area in winter.

Bill Viertel spoke from experience, saying he lives in a nearby area that unfortunately had been partially cleared and has since experienced extensive blowdown damage.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t cut the heritage forest, it will blow down if the integrity is destroyed,” he said. “I guarantee you, this plan is flawed.”

While the public was repeatedly assured about the checks and balances of the permit process, opponents painted a “death by a thousand permits” scenario.

Marianne Edaine, also of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, urged commissioners to address the project as a whole, just as the forest as a whole.

“If the woven mat (of roots) is broken, you can kiss the whole forest goodbye,” she said. “You can’t cut out a chunk and expect it to operate as a whole.”

Commissioners noted concerns about water use and traffic problems, but said those will be addressed as they arise in the permitting process.

In rendering their decision, commissioners restated that SPU had a long history of being a good neighbor.

“In my opinion SPU has done, over the last 50 years, everything we could hope they could do,” Commissioner Mike Shelton said. “Now is not the time to turn on them and make the ongoing operation impossible.”

Commissioner Thorn, in making a motion to approve the amendment, chided those in attendance for “putting the cart way before the horse,” and for not speaking up earlier, during the public hearings.

“If you’re going to be engaged, then get engaged,” he said.

Erickson said he was disappointed that commissioners did not postpone their decision, given the amount of public input at the meeting.

He said WEAN is considering filing an appeal with the state hearings examiner.

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