SPU plan faces challenges

In an effort to change construction plans for the Camp Casey Conference Center, Whidbey Environmental Action Network is threatening to appeal the rezoning of the Central Whidbey retreat center.

Steve Erickson, representing Whidbey Environmental Action Network, wants Seattle Pacific University, which owns the center, to move planned construction outside a forested area.

The project calls for increasing the number of beds at the center from 670 to 1,030, building additional conference meeting-room space to accommodate 275 people and providing additional parking and infrastructure to deal with the expansion.

According to the master plan of the Casey Conference Center, 14 acres of land is needed for growth. Of that, five acres fall within the forest and would be cleared.

“What bothers me the most is that most of this project could be placed outside of this forest,” Erickson said at Monday’s commissioners’ meeting. “We don’t think it’s appropriate to lose any more unlogged forests in the Puget Sound lowlands.”

He added that WEAN is going to file its appeal sometime before the end of the month.

Basically, WEAN contends that the clearing of trees would cause damage to the remainder of the forest through wind, erosion and increased traffic from people visiting the center.

Some people at the meeting were concerned that SPU’’s expansion at Camp Casey would go unchecked because of the new designation.

Mike Shelton, Island County commissioner, said SPU has been a good steward of the environment, and has spent considerable expense developing a master plan for the area.

Suzan Hizon, coordinator for planning and development for SPU, defended the plan this week and said the university is going to continue working with its consultants to minimize environmental impacts.

“We’re going to continue to move forward with the plan as approved by the Island County commissioners,” Hizon said Tuesday.

SPU developed a plan for the area that called for Camp Casey to be rezoned from a rural designation to a special review district.

The zoning had to be changed because the conference center doesn’t meet the requirements of a rural zone, said Shelton.

Jeff Tate, assistant director of Island County Planning and Community Development, said that the special review district establishes parameters that protect the character of the area.

“The special review district allows for uses that are typically hard to site in other zones. We need to acknowledge the little gems on the island,” Tate said. He pointed out Greenbank Farm as another special review district.

He added that the master plan that was submitted by SPU provided guidelines for construction in the zone. The review district applies to parcels of land that are larger than 150 acres and are owned publicly or by a non-profit organization.

Shelton pointed out that the Camp Casey project has to go through the permitting process and any environmental issues that come up have to be mitigated before any construction could begin.

Tate added that if SPU should decide to change its plans, it would have to go through the whole process again to have the site redesignated as a special review district, including submitting a new master plan.

In addition to appealing the special review district, members of WEAN and other residents visited a recent county commissioners meeting to voice their displeasure in the Camp Casey project.

The commissioners approved findings of fact at Monday’s regular meeting. Tate said that the findings provide a basis for the special review district that was approved last December.

Although there wasn’t time scheduled for public comment about the findings, the commissioners allowed two minutes for anyone wishing to comment.

After insulting the competency of the board, Erickson presented a paper that criticized the county’s findings.

For example, at a December meeting where people filled the meeting room to comment on the Camp Casey expansion, Erickson pointed out that anyone who wasn’t a public official who spoke at the meeting opposed the project.

Shelton countered, “It wasn’t all negative and I think a lot of people changed their minds after they heard what SPU said.”

Erickson was also critical of the existing use clause that allows for the expansion.

Others in attendance at the meeting commented that the expansion and zone change threatens the area’s rural character.

Hizon said that the rezoning will provide some protection of the environment and offers a predictable plan for the future.

You can reach News-Times reporter Nathan Whalen at or 675-6611.

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