Commissioners deny grant, calling Coupeville ‘anti-Navy’

In a move highlighting growing tension between North and Central Whidbey, two Island County commissioners are refusing to approve a grant for a community greens project in Coupeville because they believe the community is anti-Navy.

Commissioners Rick Hannold and Jill Johnson, whose districts are in North Whidbey, said they took offense to a series of actions by the Town of Coupeville and Central Whidbey citizens in recent months.

The last straw, they said, was a Coupeville council workshop last week in which council members spoke bluntly about their concerns with the Navy’s plans to increase the number of EA-18G Growlers that conduct touch-and-go landings at the Outlying Field outside of town.

“IT’S A POOR use of tax dollars to support a town that is hostile toward the economic driver of the county,” Hannold told a Whidbey News-Times reporter, pointing out that the funding for the grant comes from sales taxes generated largely because of the presence of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island on the north end of the island.

Johnson doesn’t deny that her decision was political, nor that it will increase the acrimony between Oak Harbor and Coupeville, but she blames Coupeville for starting it.

“When you punch someone in the face,” she said, “I don’t think you should be offended when you are punched back.”

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, whose district covers South and Central Whidbey, argued against the decision.

“Denying access to local economic development funds shouldn’t be used as a tool to punish people who may have a different perspective on a federal issue,” Price Johnson said, adding that decisions regarding two completely separate issues should be kept separate.

COUPEVILLE MAYOR Molly Hughes said she is shocked by the action.

“I feel it’s inappropriate to mix their personal feelings about one subject with a funding decision in a completely different matter,” she said, adding that she may look into taking legal action.

It’s inaccurate to label an entire community as “anti-Navy” just because some citizens and leaders asked questions and expressed concerns, Hughes said, noting that the two commissioners never met with her or council members to discuss the issue.

The plan for the community green includes the addition of a public bathroom, lighting, increased parking and other improvements to a 3.9-acre open space in the center of town.

The town applied for a $600,000 grant from the rural county economic development funds.

Under the program, the state credits the county back 0.09 in state sales tax. The funds are administered by the county commissioners.

THE COMMUNITY GREENS project was approved by an economic development group that reviewed grant applications as well as the Council of Governments. Hughes said the project received nothing but positive comments.

But Hannold and Johnson put the kibosh on the town’s application Wednesday.

“I’m not turning the cheek anymore on something that matters this much,” Johnson told the News-Times.

Convergence of two Navy-related issues late last year precipitated the recent focus on the Navy and its impact on surrounding communities.

First, the Navy released a draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, on plans to add 35 or 36 Growlers stationed at NAS Whidbey. That would translate to a 47 percent increase in operation, including aircraft carrier landing practice at Outlying Field Coupeville.

TWO CITIZEN groups in Coupeville raised concerns about the increase in jet noise. One group, Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, sued the Navy to require an EIS and publicly protested Growler noise.

A new group, Coupeville Community Allies, stated it isn’t anti-Navy and is focused on educating the community about the draft EIS.

Both groups — as well as the Navy — encouraged citizens to submit comments about the EIS to the Navy during the ongoing comment period.

The town hired a couple of professionals to evaluate the draft EIS and prepare comments. The council discussed the draft comments last week.

Some council members expressed concerns about how an increase in noise will impact the way of life in the rural landscape, as well as the town’s tourism and agrarian economy.

A draft letter states that a five- or six-fold increase in jet operations “is inconsistent and not tolerable to everything we have worked for in Coupeville and Central Whidbey.”

IN A SEPARATE issue, the Navy started testing drinking water wells near OLF Coupeville and the Ault Field base for a potentially harmful chemical that’s found in firefighting foam. The town conducted independent testing of wells that are near OLF Coupeville.

One of the chemicals was detected but at levels well below the lifetime health advisory level set by the EPA.

Hughes said she believes it would be irresponsible not do independent testing, but Hannold said the town could have just trusted the Navy’s results.

“They apparently don’t need the money,” he said of town officials. “They had money to do their own EIS, their own water tests and to double the pay of the mayor.”

THE STANCE on Coupeville taken by Johnson and Hannold has the potential for impacts beyond the town’s grant request.

Councilwoman Pat Powell is also the director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, which has a history of partnering with the county and has received grants in the past through the county’s Conservation Futures Fund. The fact that Powell is part of the Coupeville council won’t be lost on him when grant applications come around again, Hannold said.

“I would be lying if I said it wouldn’t be in the back of my mind,” he said.

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Photo by Maria Matson/Whidbey News -Times
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