Commissioner bemoans lack of input in reserve rules

An Island County commissioner is upset at the lack of representation from districts two and three in decisions regarding Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve in Central Whidbey.

At a recent work session to discuss code updates regarding permitting within the reserve, Commissioner Jill Johnson said the process is flawed in that she and Commissioner Rick Hannold are not able to weigh in on what is allowable in the area.

“I have zero opportunity to interact with these types of activities,” Johnson said at the meeting. “… I’m trying to understand who’s been empowered to make what kind of administrative positions.”

Johnson represents district two, which covers the city of Oak Harbor and Hannold represents district three, which covers North Whidbey and Camano Island. Commissioner Helen Price Johnson represents district one, which includes Central and South Whidbey.

Johnson, a Republican, said later the issue has been a problem since the board has had a conservative majority. Hannold, also a Republican, will be replaced by Democrat Janet St. Clair next year.

“For six years, a term and a half, an entire term of board philosophy, there’s not been an opportunity to talk about these things,” she said. “But by all means, let’s bring it back next year.”

The conversation centered around the permitting process within the reserve, which can include a secondary review by the Historic Preservation Commission, established six years ago. The commission includes four representatives from Coupeville, four from the county and one from Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and makes recommendations on “appropriateness” of projects within the boundaries of the reserve.

Because Ebey’s Landing falls within district one, which is everything south of the greater Oak Harbor area, the commissioner from that district makes the county appointments to that commission.

“I am unsure of what’s being represented on behalf of the board by planning staff and by the commissioner representing the board,” Johnson said.

She later clarified her frustration wasn’t necessarily with Price Johnson nor the planning staff member who works with the HPC, but rather the process that didn’t allow full board input for so long.

Price Johnson said this is the first time there have been significant code updates brought forward related to the reserve, which is why it hasn’t come to the board in that time. She said she also hasn’t been a part of the conversations about the code itself; the language proposed was developed at the staff level with feedback from the preservation commission.

She also clarified she is not a voting member of the trust board for the reserve.

“There has not been one commissioner weighing in on these specifics of the code as yet,” she said. “… I want to make sure nobody thinks that there’s been any sense to conceal anything for the last six years at all.”

Hannold said the design standards of the reserve are too subjective and shouldn’t require a quasi-judicial board to review what is acceptable and not.

“It should be black and white,” he said. “Not up to individuals who might have biases.”

Planning staff said the code is meant to add flexibility, which is why there is the secondary review process and public comment period. The proposed updates would streamline permitting on existing structures and construction within subdivisions such as Rolling Hills. There are also proposed considerations for technology, such as solar panels.

Price Johnson suggested staff meet individually with the commissioners to go over the current code and proposed updates, and she agreed the process is flawed in that more information hadn’t come to the full board before.

Johnson said the conversation didn’t start until “the board actually had a fit at a table like this.”

“It’s very frustrating from where we sit here,” she said, “to watch six years of opportunity to just slip through your hands in terms of shaping policy.”

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