The Board of Island County Commissioners signed a settlement agreement last week with the Whidbey Environmental Action Network over the county’s critical areas ordinance update.
WEAN filed a petition for review in November to the Growth Management Hearings Board, raising 10 issues with the county’s action.
The ordinance, updated in August, is meant to protect wetlands, critical aquifer recharge areas, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, frequently flooded areas and geologically hazardous areas.
In entering the settlement, the county agrees to process the agreement’s proposed amendments, an action that will require a public hearing and other opportunities for public input.
The commissioners all made it clear that the agreement does not bind the county to adopt the proposed amendments nor does it accept the claim that the ordinance does not properly protect critical areas.
“When you say ‘settlement agreement’ and you say WEAN in the same sentence, it raises hackles on people’s [necks] out there in the public,” said Commissioner Rick Hannold at the meeting.
He and the other commissioners expressed frustration at the environmental action network’s action occurring after the ordinance was adopted. The 10 complaints are related to either logging in critical areas or agricultural practices. The proposed amendments only add language that clarifies current practices related to those two activities and doesn’t substantively change the ordinance, according to Planning Director Hiller West.
Commissioner Jill Johnson said she believes the adoption process was “smooth” and the county was complimented by the environmental action network.
Johnson said the 10 issues being raised post adoption are “the perfect illustration of the tactics we’ve been up against.”
Steve Erickson of WEAN said the group did bring these issues to the county’s attention, to which fellow WEAN member Marianne Edain added “repeatedly, for years.”
Though he did call the update an improvement, Erickson spoke during the Aug. 18 public hearing to issues around logging and development, saying the ordinance “does not fully exercise the county’s full authority when it comes to logging.”
At the hearing he also brought up a lack of specificity in the sections about water quality standards and the requirements for farm best management practices.
One amendment states that if a critical area is logged under a “non-conversion” permit, that area cannot be developed for six years.
The other amendments make it clear that the county will take action if water quality standards are exceeded and specify the standards for acceptance of farm best management plans.
Erickson said if all the amendments are adopted, everything else is “water under the bridge.”
“We look forward to these corrections being made and putting these issues behind us,” he said.
None of the commissioners expressed any misgivings about the proposed amendments, but rather frustration at the petition for review itself. Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she hoped the agreement would be a “first step in a new chapter with the environmental action network.”
The Growth Management Hearings Board rejected the commissioners’ motion to dismiss nine of the issues ruling that the board had jurisdiction over the issues raised and that WEAN had standing to bring the issues raised in the petition.
Hannold felt the commissioners have been unfairly targeted by the group over the years, calling it “openly antagonistic” toward the board.
“I’m not usually in favor of negotiating with anybody,” said Hannold. “But somebody that makes their living at filing suits, especially aimed at Island County commissioners and our planning department— it just irritates me that this whole issue came up at this time and in this manner.”