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Could Camano Island become county’s fourth city?
By JUSTIN BURNETT
South Whidbey Record
The City of Camano?
To some, that has a nice ring. To others, not so much.
While opinions vary, an effort is under way to incorporate Camano Island, and supporters hope that by 2015 island residents will be making many more decisions for themselves.
“This is really about local control, getting people on Camano to have a bit more say on what happens at home,” said James McCafferty, a Camano resident and a member of the group working toward incorporation.
Formed about one year ago, the organization doesn’t have a formal name yet and is small with only about a dozen members. But it’s beginning to grow, said McCafferty, and their ranks now include one of the island’s most influential people — former longtime state senator Mary Margaret Haugen.
McCafferty is quick to point out, however, that the effort is not about her. Residents exploring incorporation are politically diversified and not all were Haugen supporters, he said.
“This is not a Mary Margaret project,” McCafferty said.
Haugen is in full agreement. In a telephone interview recently, Haugen said she is enjoying retirement from decades of politics in Olympia — she was unseated in 2012 by Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor — but did eagerly agree to help out when asked.
“For people on Camano, it’s a long way to Whidbey Island,” Haugen said.
Many see Camano as Whidbey’s often forgotten or overlooked twin sister, an island in the shadow of power. Decisions are made in Coupeville, the county seat, which is an hour-long drive from northern Camano. According to Haugen, it’s 50 miles from her house and laws are crafted by people who have never even set foot on the island she calls home.
“You could be on the planning commission and make rules for us but have never been here,” she said.
“It’s about self governance,” she added.
If Bainbridge can do it
Camano Island isn’t without a voice, however. Commissioner Kelly Emerson serves as District 3’s representative on the county’s highest decision-making body — the Board of Commissioners. But Haugen and McCafferty say representation on the board is one of the challenges of being so close yet so far away.
As just one of three votes, Camano’s commissioner is serving with two elected officials who represent Whidbey constituents. The potential is there for Whidbey’s interest to receive priority, McCafferty said. Ironically, Emerson is the sole county commissioner who has voiced outright opposition to the effort.
“The only person who’s been negative about it has been Kelly Emerson,” he said.
The group recently met with Emerson and they claim she was less than supportive, a position the commissioner confirmed in a statement to The Record recently.
“As I am against the oppression that big government places on its people, clearly I would not be supporting the effort for the expansion of government on Camano Island,” she said.
Emerson also wrote in her October newsletter that incorporation would just result in “another layer of government.”
“More government equals more taxes,” Emerson wrote. “More taxes equals less interest in investing on Camano, more fleeing from Camano and Island County going deeper down the road of becoming a two-class society.”
She also called out Haugen’s involvement specifically, saying the former senator was “one of the strongest backers of the Growth Management Act” but that she is “now seeking a way around the regulations for her homestead.”
Haugen acknowledged that Growth Management Act requirements would pose some problems for making the entire island one city, though she pointed out that it has been done successfully elsewhere.
Bainbridge Island, which was largely rural except for the city of Winslow, incorporated about four years ago. According to Mayor Steve Bonkowski, the idea behind the effort was, again, to gain additional local control and be able to make wanted zoning changes in rural areas.
Approved by ballot measure, voters approved a request to expand Winslow to encompass the entire island and be renamed the City of Bainbridge. It passed narrowly with many outside Winslow wanting to remain rural Kitsap County residents, Bonkowski said.
“It was very close,” he said.
Also, due to the establishment of Winslow, the island already had fire and police departments, as well as school districts.
“We had a lot of the infrastructure already,” Bonkowski said.
One of the biggest headaches was finding funding for the 150 miles of road that snake across the island. Its maintenance is now the responsibility of the city. Bonkowski said part of the solution has been found in partnerships with the county and other municipalities in Kitsap County. Together they apply for regional monies for mutual benefit, he said.
According to Haugen, if an island like Bainbridge can incorporate, so can Camano. She added that Emerson’s opposition has not dampened the effort, but actually worked to legitimize the complaints about poor representation.
“I think it’s fueled the effort,” Haugen said.
Real problems or imagined
According to McCafferty, Camano Island may not have an existing city, such as Winslow, but it does already have infrastructure, from fire and school districts to water and library districts. All those services will still exist if incorporation is successful, and what isn’t can be contracted out, McCafferty said.
He alleges it may actually be a financial benefit to both Whidbey and Camano, specifically concerning law enforcement. The Island County Sheriff’s Office has complained in recent years of budget cuts and manpower shortages. Reducing its scope may help cut down on expenses, such as hauling those arrested on Camano to Whidbey jails.
“This may be financially smart,” McCafferty said.
Sheriff Mark Brown isn’t too sure. Running an effective law enforcement office so far away “certainly is a challenge for me,” said Brown, but contracting services out or starting a new department will be equally challenging.
But Brown says they have bigger problems ahead, particularly becoming an urban growth area, or UGA, one of the precursors for incorporation.
“I think law enforcement would the least of their problems,” Brown said.
But McCafferty claims there are no density requirements for such a designation; all that’s required is a green light from the commissioners. He also said a Camano Island city wouldn’t need to start its own police department, that it could contract out with Stanwood police or Snohomish County, which proposed taking over law enforcement on the island a few years ago.
Many are against the incorporation effort, said McCafferty, because of inaccurate assumptions. That includes requirements for UGAs and the need to have existing services.
“You don’t have to do all that, you don’t,” he said.
There are very specific steps, however, that must be taken. Camano must first be designated a UGA. A feasibility study would follow and then a percentage of voters who participated in the last election would need to sign a petition to put in on a future ballot. Only then would island residents get to vote on the measure.
It would not be the first time. The same measure \was overwhelmingly defeated in 1991 when 2,569 people voted against the proposal. Just 334 voted in favor of it. Haugen, however, says times have changed and that Camano Islanders are much more receptive to the idea today.
“It was a totally different island,” Haugen said.
McCafferty is equally optimistic but said there is still much research that needs to be done to determine whether incorporation is really best for Camano.
“We want to see a rational model on what this really means,” McCafferty said.
“It has to be something that’s good for both sides of the water,” he added.