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Highways become Whidbey Scenic Isle Way

The two highways that run down the center of Whidbey Island, dividing it east from west, are the nation’s only officially-designated scenic byway on an island.

Now there’s a full-color plan which documents the beauty, as well as the historical, cultural and natural qualities, of the places the roadway runs through, and puts forth ideas for ways to preserve and enhance the highways.

It’s called the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way Corridor Management Plan.

“It’s the one roadway that connects us all together,” said Larry Webster, a co-chair of the committee which created the plan. “It’s the first impression for visitors and also an important part of island life for residents.”

After 18 months of labor, the steering committee is celebrating the birth of the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way Corridor by throwing a birthday party at 1 p.m., Sunday, May 22, at the Greenbank Farm.

Mike Morton, transportation planner for the Regional Transportation Planning Organization in Skagit and Island counties, said the the impetus for creating the plan actually came from Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen during an RTPO meeting. She pointed out that the organization rarely looks at beautifying or trying to protect the highway’s scenery.

As a result, the staff submitted an application to the Federal Highway Administration and received a $70,000 grant from the National Scenic Byways program to create a management plan.

About 30 volunteers from all walks of life on Whidbey worked together to create the plan. They met all over the island and took input from at least 200 residents. Morton was the project manager. The organization hired consultants from Seattle-based Otak, Inc., to put the full-color plan together.

“It turned into a coffee table book,” Webster said.

Morton explained that the document is really a set of recommendations for the community and isn’t something that will be adopted by government bodies. It doesn’t have any “teeth,” so property owners have no need to worry that it would affect them.

“It’s not a regulatory document,” Morton said. “It’s more of a stewardship sort of thing.”

The plan contains a long list of actions plans for preserving and enhancing the byway, as well as promoting and marketing the corridor.

The actions items include:

l Develop a highway beautification plan and work with private land owners on individual projects.

l Obtain funding for ongoing administration of the plan.

l Expand the existing corridor organization, become a non-profit organization and partner with other agencies.

l Develop a scenic byway logo through an island-wide competition.

l Implement an on-going community participation program.

l Create a scenic byways Web site.

l Start a highway safety campaign.

l Create brochures, including a map showing the top 20 walks on Whidbey.

l Work with the state Department of Transportation to maintain roadway character through road design.

l Do plantings and native vegetation projects along the road.

The plan also lists site-specific action items. The items include wildlife viewing platforms at Dugualla Bay, Hastie Lake and Crockett Lake; a comfort station at the Lake Hancock pull-off near the Greenbank Farm; and a traffic study in Clinton.

Morton said an important item for the steering committee and the community to consider is whether they should attempt to get the byway designated under the National Scenic Byway program. The highway corridor was designated as a state scenic byway in 1967, but the federal designation would mean a lot more exposure and more federal grant money.

Yet Morton said not everyone thinks the nation-wide attention would be a good thing.

“It’s really a double-edged sword dilemma,” Morton said. “With a national designation comes national exposure. It would be great for tourism, but it can also bring more traffic.”

One of the toughest parts of the planning process, Morton said, was coming up with a name for the scenic byway. After much discussion, the members decided on “Whidbey Scenic Isle Way,” not to be confused with the not-so-scenic aisle-ways in Wal-Mart.

The plan describes the highway corridor in detail and points out many of the “intrinsic qualities” of the land along the roadway, which can be natural, recreational, scenic, historic, cultural or archaeological.

The plan inventories nearly 300 locations with important intrinsic qualities. Deception Pass State Park, for example, has many of those qualities, as does Dugualla Bay, downtown Oak Harbor, Ebey’s Prairie, San de Fuca and even Blue Fox Drive-In.

The plan presents an “interpretive plan” for telling the story of the byway, piece by piece. The documents suggests that this story can be told through a variety of media, including signs, publications, historical reenactments and guided tours.

The interpretive message for Penn Cove, the plan suggests, could be that mussel farming still plays an important role in Penn Cove; the story of the Salish village; the factors that brought early settlers to Penn Cove; and the George Vancouver and Joseph Whidbey expeditions.

Steering-committee member Helen Chatfield-Weeks suggested that the plan itself is a valuable tool for telling the story of the byway.

“It will help anybody who lives on the island to appreciate what we have,” she said, “and it will inspire visitors to come here.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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