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Islanders define scenic corridor

Anyone on Whidbey Island can tell you one of the best things about living here is the stunning views along the highway. It’s the best commute in Puget Sound, hands down.

Local groups have formed a steering committee as part of a year-long project to ensure highway vistas such as Deception Pass and Penn Cove are enhanced and preserved.

The group is part of the process to develop a Corridor Management Plan to protect scenic viewpoints along the highway.

The plan is one of the steps that could lead to Highway 20 and Highway 525 on Whidbey Island being labeled a National Scenic Byway.

In the next couple of months the 26-person committee will use disposable cameras to identify “intrinsic qualities” of the island.

Qualities the committee is looking for range from the wind-swept prairies of the Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve and local fishing spots to historic structures such as the San de Fuca schoolhouse.

“We have a blueprint, time and schedule of what we want to accomplish,” said Mike Morton, Island County transportation planner who is also the project manager for the plan.

Once sites are identified, the committee will then help form a plan that is supposed to help transportation needs, encourage tourism and maintain the quality of life for island residents.

The committee is comprised of representatives from local government and such community groups as the Audobon Society and the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

“You’ve got to have everybody at the table to ensure you don’t miss anything,” Morton said.

Committee member and Executive Director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Priscilla Heistad, said she hopes there will be some effort to improve signs to lead tourists to attractions off the highway such as downtown Oak Harbor.

One scenic area she photographed is the Blue Fox Drive-in, which is one of six remaining outdoor theaters in the state.

Fellow committee member and representative of the Whidbey Island Audobon Society, Steve Ellis, said there’s a potential for a program that helps eradicate non-native plants along the highway.

Removing such plants would make way for a more native vegetation that could be seen from the highway.

Significant sites he’s photographing for the committee include Crockett Lake and Smith Prairie.

“We need recognition that our natural areas are important to residents and tourist,” Ellis said.

One stretch of highway that he pointed out as having multiple areas of significance is Grasser’s Lagoon on Penn Cove.

The lagoon serves as a recreation site for anglers and bird watchers and has a historical aspect because it is close to the San de Fuca schoolhouse and was once a shellfishing site for Native Americans.

Once the committee members have an idea of scenic areas on the island they will present them to the public at a series of meetings in January.

A Seattle-based consultant firm, Otak, Inc., was hired to help with the meetings and management plan.

Otak has done similar work on Highway 410 and the Volcanic Legacy Corridor that goes from southern Oregon to northern California.

Mandi Roberts, an Otak representative, said the meetings will take a week to conduct. Meetings will be held with community groups during the day and the general public at night.

The information from the meetings and the committee will be compiled and a corridor plan is expected to be ready by September 2004.

Having another plan to follow does leave one concern about the project.

“My only concern is that we’re making another plan without any action coming out of it,” Heistad said.

Roberts said that having the corridor management plan opens up pools of federal money the county previously wouldn’t have been eligible to receive.

“We don’t do a plan for planning sake, we want to move forward,” Roberts said, adding that an implementation plan is also part of the upcoming work.

Executive Director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust and committee member, Pat Powell, supports the project and pointed out that the plan’s effectiveness also depends on whether the community wants to use it.

In addition to highlighting scenic views on the island, there will be an effort to identify any eyesores that plague the corridor.

Morton said the committee is not targeting anything specific and such a process could be “a touchy subject.”

Such sites could include gravel pits and junkyards. Morton said if any sites are identified, the landowners would have to be involved in any decision to screen the area from public view.

Money for the plan is funded through a $70,000 federal grant and contributions from the county, Island Transit and all three cities on the island.

You can reach News-Times reporter Nathan Whalen at nwhalen@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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