Opinion

Ebey’s Reserve protection fails with lack of political will

Is it time to do away with Ebey’s Landing National Reserve? That was a question I posed at the last Historical Review Committee meeting.

Thirty years ago this year, the Island County community came together to establish the reserve. The purpose was to preserve a way of life, to preserve our history. Not everyone was in favor of a reserve. After a hard-fought battle though, our community came together, formed the reserve, and believed it was protected. Almost immediately we learned it was not. Inappropriate development quickly encroached upon areas intended to be protected. People complained, but nothing was done. Then, in 2005 a county ordinance was finally enacted to protect what was left of the reserve. There was a collective sigh of relief. Less than three years later however, the Jefferds’ fiasco, and other inappropriate developments prove we were mistaken again. It is clear that the Ebey’s Reserve ordinance is insufficient protection, especially when there appears to be no political will to enforce it.

So at our last meeting I asked whether the reserve made sense anymore. It was a rhetorical question. I personally believe the reserve is a rare gem that needs to be protected and preserved. I thought everyone in the commission room that morning felt the same way. I was wrong. Andy Griffin, the Island County Planning Department’s liaison with the HRC, told us that he didn’t see any purpose for the reserve anymore because agriculture was no longer economically viable on Whidbey Island. He commented that the only remaining reason for keeping the reserve was so that tourists could drive through and look out their car windows at the prairie as they exited the island. The implication was that the reserve had somehow become an unnecessary and unfair burden upon residents for the sole benefit of tourists. I was shocked. This didn’t sound like the Andy I knew. It struck me that Andy must be repeating what he had heard elsewhere, likely from his superiors at the planning department and the county commission.

This suspicion was strengthened when I subsequently read Planning Director Jeff Tate’s recent comments in the Whidbey News Times. Assuming he was quoted correctly, Tate said that he and the planning department had found nothing wrong with the Jefferds’ building plans. The seven members of the HRC had found a lot wrong with those plans, however. Citing, in detail, conflicts with six different sections of the reserve ordinance, the seven of us had unanimously recommended rejection.

Was Tate just trying to deflect the error of issuing this building permit; or was he also saying that the ordinance should be ignored because the reserve is no longer necessary? The clear implication of his recent statement was that he would have rejected the HRC’s recommendation and would have approved the Jefferds’ building permit anyway despite the “error.” Does he really mean this? It’s certainly not what he was telling us all along. If it is what he means, it bodes ill for the reserve because he is the primary decision-maker as the ordinance stands now.

What Tate didn’t say in his recent comments was that if the process had been followed in the Jefferds’ case, the way it would be for everyone else trying to build a house in a contributing area in the reserve, and had he then decided to issue a building permit despite the HRC’s recommendation of rejection, the HRC could have appealed that decision. Instead, since the Jefferds’ building permit was issued in error and since Tate refused to revoke it, no one gets to appeal. Because Ian and Karen Jefferds are willing to take advantage of a mistake, they get to build an inappropriate house in a critical area of the reserve with no real checks and balances. The honorable and civic-minded thing for them to do, of course, would be to surrender the mistakenly issued permit and follow the same process everyone else has to follow. But they refuse to do that. I suspect it is because they aren’t so certain they’ll end up with a building permit for the same plans they have a mistaken permit for now. Consequently, Ian and Karen Jefferds get to make all the decisions for the reserve in this case. And our county officials say they see nothing wrong with that!

So, once again I ask, is it time to do away with the reserve? This time it is not a rhetorical question. Our community needs to make a decision. Do we value the reserve? Do we seriously want to protect what’s left of it? Or not?

If we want to preserve this rare gem, then we, the community, must act. We must let our elected and appointed officials know that they work for us and that this situation is unacceptable. If Jeff Tate and the county commissioners he reports to won’t protect the reserve, then we must do everything we can to elect officials who will.

This is an election year. Vote for county commissioners who will strengthen and protect the reserve! In addition, the reserve ordinance must be strengthened. For example, one man -- the planning director -- should not have the right under the ordinance unilaterally to overrule a citizen committee -- the HRC. Lobby for these changes. And we must also let Ian and Karen Jefferds, and anyone else who would further diminish the reserve, know that we do not approve of their actions. I, for one, will not do business with anyone who feels their personal wants are more important than the needs of the reserve.

We, the community, must act now to protect our reserve, before there’s nothing left to protect.

Paula Spina is a member of Ebey’s Landing National Reserve Historical Review Committee.

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