Town trying to ‘wrap heads’ around ‘unprecedented’ event

As members of Coupeville Town Council approved their final comments for the Navy’s draft Environmental Impact Statement Tuesday night, they were still trying to grasp all of the uproar the process created.

“It is so unprecedented we have not had a chance to wrap our heads around it,” said Mayor Molly Hughes.

“It has been suggested we are anti-Navy,” Hughes said. “I have reached out to the captain of the base and mayor of Oak Harbor and they both have assured me they don’t feel there’s a major problem between our communities.”

Last week, Island County commissioners Jill Johnson and Rick Hannold refused to move forward the town’s request for a $600,000 rural development grant for the Community Green project.

The two commissioners said it seemed to them that the town was “anti-Navy” after reading comments made by council members during an EIS workshop the previous week.

The purpose of an EIS is to collect public comment, Hughes said. At the beginning of the process the council had two main goals — figure out the public’s point of view and draft a thoughtful response.

“We’ve had a couple hiccups along the way, but we’re happy with the response,” Hughes said.

Council members have spent a lot of time on the phone and in person talking with residents and have a pretty good handle on what the majority of residents are concerned with, Hughes said.

Concerns included noise and impacts to land, groundwater, safety and quality of life.

“Never have we said we want to close OLF,” Hughes said.

The town has a number of retired veterans living in the community, Hughes said.

Added in the final draft of the town’s comments to the EIS is an emphasis that the town never asked for closure and asks that flight operations stay the same.

“It is not our desire to close OLF Coupeville, but rather to come to an agreement on the number of operations we can support in proportion to the economic, cultural and lifestyle hardship that would result,” the letter states.

“We fervently believe there is a way to provide the Growler pilots the specialized training they need to do their job safely, without significantly impacting the property owners, residents, business owners and visitors of Coupeville and Central Whidbey Island,” the letter states

Hughes said council members have a right to their opinions and, as elected officials, an obligation to represent the opinions of its citizens.

She said the town is often grouped with a vocal anti-Navy group.

“COER (Citizen of Ebey’s Reserve) is not Coupeville,” Hughes said. “COER does not speak for us.”

The majority of COER members she knows of live in unincorporated parts of the county, Hughes added.

Hannold also was critical of the town council for hiring independent testing of its wells when it learned they may be contaminated by potentially harmful firefighting foam and also for hiring an outside consultant to review the EIS.

The town’s decision to hire a consultant and independent water tests were done to be responsible officials, Hughes responded.

“They are not comments on our lack of trust in the Navy,” she said.

“It really bothered me we were criticized for hiring a consultant,” said Councilwoman Jackie Henderson.

“I’m a social worker and a volunteer council person. I don’t think it was a waste of money to help us understand.”

Coupeville resident Lori Taylor attended the council meeting Tuesday and said she went to a county commissioner meeting earlier in the day to voice displeasure with the actions taken by Johnson and Hannold.

Taylor said her comments weren’t well received, and that she found the experience disheartening.

Taylor said she considers the Coupeville Town Council courageous.

“I feel very cared for,” she said. “I just want to give my thanks.”

Hughes said the council is still processing the situation but encourages citizens wanting to help to write to the county commissioners.

Hughes said she happened to be on the Board of Island County Commissioner website and came across five guiding principles under which the commissioners operate:

• Provide for the long term health and safety of the people, the economy and our natural resources;

• Assure customer service and promote operational excellence and efficiencies of Island County;

• Promote active participation in government;

• Fulfill our constitutional responsibilities, holding ourselves to a high standard of accountability, transparency, ethics and fairness, and;

• Maintain agricultural and recreational opportunities while strengthening our economic vitality.

“I think we can all agree we fell short of these principles last week,” Hughes said.