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Hunting foes make a legal point

The Island County commissioners are staring down the barrel of a lawsuit as they decide on hunting regulations for county-owned properties.

And those threatening the legal action may have a point, according to Commissioner Mike Shelton.

Peter Eglick, attorney for the residential Useless Bay Colony which is trying to stop duck hunting in the county-owned Deer Lagoon area, claimed in a Dec. 9 letter to the commissioners that allowing hunting there violates the State Environmental Policy Act.

“The issues around SEPA may, according to our attorney, be real,” Shelton said Tuesday morning, after having spent a long Monday night at a public hearing in Coupeville dealing with the hunting controversy.

The commissioners plan to adopt hunting regulations at their regular meeting Monday, Dec. 19. The controversial properties include the Kettles Trail area of Central Whidbey, Deer Lagoon and Goss Lake Woods on South Whidbey, and Camano Ridge on Camano Island.

Shelton said they’ll be exploring the SEPA issues this week to see if they affect the situation at Deer Lagoon.

“The county cannot lawfully open Deer Lagoon to hunting,” Eglick’s letter argues. “If it attempts to do, the county may find itself embroiled in a protracted legal controversy.”

While Eglick argued a number of points, including safety and noise, the SEPA issue got the county’s attention. Deer Lagoon was a no-hunting area before the county purchased the property, and changing its use requires going through the SEPA process, which can be costly and time consuming, according to Eglick.

“The SEPA process is not just a formality in this case. Hunting within Deer Lagoon will likely have probable significant impacts on bird species and other wildlife,” Eglick stated.

Shelton was unsure what the county’s course will be. It’s possible the commissioners could change their minds on Deer Lagoon and ban hunting, depending on legal advice, he acknowledged.

The controversial properties on Whidbey Island all lie inside Shelton’s District 1 commissioner boundaries, and he said the hunting issue is “one of the most difficult issues we’ve faced.”

In October, following another contentious public hearing, the commissioners voted unanimously to allow hunting on the county-owned lands. The intent of Monday’s hearing was to present proposed hunting regulations to the public.

The Coupeville Recreation Hall was filled with more than 100 citizens including a large contingent of hunters, some of whom were sporting camo and hunter’s orange caps.

Hunters and hunting opponents took turns at the microphone, taking potshots at the proposed regulations.

“They only thing we’ve done is irritate both sides,” Shelton said Tuesday, his frustration obvious.

Hunters criticized the boundaries set for Deer Lagoon, saying they’re too restrictive.

Lagoon neighbors said hunting was too dangerous and noisy for the growing neighborhood.

The controversial Kettles Trail area on Central Whidbey drew similar disparate comments.

“Women push baby buggies in that area,” said Coupeville resident Connie Wolfe. “Something could happen that would be just terrible.”

“We can co-exist with the hunters,” countered John Jeffries, a hiker who takes nature photographs in the Kettles area. “There have been no accidents with hunters and there probably never will be. The trails are for everyone.”

Opponents repeatedly raised safety and noise issues, while hunters pointed to their extensive firearms safety training and the fact nobody can remember any hunting-related accidents in the county.

Clapping and catcalls of support were common as speakers made their presentations. Hunting supporter Mike McInerney got the loudest vocal support when he responded to Mike Noblet, a former mayor of Bothell who now lives at Useless Bay.

“We are rolled out of bed the moment the first hunter starts,” Noblet complained.

McInerney later responded, “We don’t want Bothell here!” and the hunters in the crowd reacted with loud enthusiasm.

Several speakers complained that hunting is being allowed on park land, but Shelton said that is not the case. All the properties are managed by the Parks Department, he said, but they are not county parks. It’s illegal to hunt in designated county parks.

Shelton also pointed out that hunting is presently legal in all the areas being considered for regulation, and that the county’s recommendations are more restrictive than state hunting laws. The exception is the Kettles Trail area, he added.

The Kettles Trail includes its namesake main trail, which was paid for by the county. Other trails crisscross the property, but they are not recognized by the 150-yard no-hunting setback from Kettles Trail that’s proposed by the county.

“Kettles is a little bit more muddled,” Shelton said, pointing to the history of county hunting regulations there since the trail was made part of the non-motorized trail system in the late ‘90s.

One hunter called for keeping non-hunters out of the Kettles area during the 10-week hunting season, while other speakers wanted to keep hunters out year round.

The commissioners will discuss the hunting ordinance Dec. 19 but no more public testimony will be allowed. Regular meetings start at 9:30 a.m.

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