SOUNDOFF: Camp Casey plans threaten our area

For more than 25 years, people in Central Whidbey have spent untold time, energy, and money to preserve the unique, magical character of the natural gifts left to us by the last ice age and the history left to us by the first settlers. People have fought hard to save the shoreline, the bluffs, the natural prairies bordered by islands of magnificent trees, the barns and blockhouses, and the residential and commercial architecture of the middle and late 1800’s.They have tried to make sure that as the march of progress inevitably came, that the new co-existed in a complementary way with the old rather than obliterating it. That this has been done so successfully is little short of amazing and is truly a tribute to those who sacrificed so much for succeeding generations.

During those years many crises arose, points in time when if people had fought less hard and been less tenacious and visionary, this special area would have been lost, absorbed into our homogeneous, tasteless consumer culture. Before Ebey’s Prairie was saved, a road had been bulldozed right down the middle of the fields readying it for development. Before the beach between Keystone and Admiral’s Cove was saved, some wanted to fill it with a continuous string of cheek-by-jowl houses and had begun to do so. More recently, the Jenne farm, the Engle fields, and the Pratt forest would also have been lost if people and organizations had not stepped up and prevented the serious compromise of that original vision by development.


war never ends

Unfortunately, we now stand at yet another crossroads, faced with another battle in the war that seems to have no end to ensure the preservation of all that has gone before. Camp Casey, as you have heard, faces a financial problem. Although owned by Seattle Pacific University, SPU does not bankroll the Conference Center. It is expected to be self-sustaining, and it is perilously close to being unable to do that. In order to improve their financial situation, they have developed a Master Plan that would expand their conference center well beyond the 600-plus beds that their barracks now provide. In the near term they would hope to expand by 400-plus beds, adding cabins and conference buildings more suitable to adults than to children in soccer and basketball camps. Ultimately, the expansion may reach 1,000-plus beds beyond their current capacity. Rather than locating this huge addition in existing open areas, their plan calls for it to be carved out of the forest behind the bed and breakfast in the old officers’ quarters on Engle Road. To pay for these capital improvements, they are seriously considering selling off the northern 30 acres of their property for development, the land ironically now called the Bocker Environmental Preserve, the land that borders the Engle fields that were just saved from development by the Federal Government’s $3.5 million purchase of the development rights. At the time the Bockers gave the first parcel of land to Casey in 1970-71, the gift contained stipulations that it remain undeveloped, but those conditions were removed in 1974.

Camp Casey marches on

I am sympathetic to Camp Casey’s financial plight, for they have been a good neighbor over the years. I would gladly have joined my fellow citizens and participated in discussions with them in an attempt to achieve a win-win whereby their needs and the need to maintain the character of this area would both be met. They have, however, been fairly secretive about the progress they have been making in getting their plan approved, which interestingly is counter to the new SPU mission statement that emphasizes community involvement and outreach as a major component. People may not realize it, but Camp Casey’s march toward their goal is very far along. Public discussion was already held (did you miss it?), but it was poorly advertised and sparsely attended. In August they received approval of the property line adjustments in the northern 30 acres that allows them to comply with the 5 acre minimum requirement for lots in the rural zone, in the process creating 5 saleable lots. The whole thing has progressed so far that on Dec. 16 Island County Planning is going to recommend to the County Commissioners that Camp Casey be granted a Special Review District “in order to establish a predictable land use scenario.” For normal, non-government-speak people, that means to extract it from the normal zoning restrictions so that they can proceed with the succeeding phases of getting their plan approved in an unobstructed way. Furthermore, Island County Planning is going to recommend that the current phase of the Camp Casey Master Plan be approved so that they can move on to the next steps in the process.

To be fair, there are many more hurdles that the plans for the Casey Conference Center expansion and the sale of the 5 lots to provide funds for that expansion must jump before they can be implemented, hurdles like adequate water, sewer, traffic controls, fire safety, etc., but one should not underestimate the significance of clearing these initial hurdles. It sets the tone for all that follows.

County can’t

stop plans

Island County Planning’s job is not to prevent people from doing things that are stupid, fiscally unsound, unaesthetic or out of character with the vision that has shaped the Ebey’s Landing Historical Reserve. Their job is only to ensure that hundreds of minute regulations and rules are met. They are effectively constrained such that they cannot see the forest for the trees. And there are literally dozens of salivating realtors, loggers, bulldozer operators, ditch diggers, builders and developers who are glad they can’t.

So what are the problems?

1.The first major problem is the enormity of this plan. The idea of 400-1000 additional people at the conference center is simply beyond the carrying capacity of this area. Think of that many adults taking showers every morning. Coupeville isn’t about to turn over that many precious water permits to them, if any. Where is all the sewage for that many people going to go? Think of such a crowd disgorging onto the beach during free time at a conference: Coney Island comes to mind. Think of them all hitting the road together at the end of the conference. Think of them all streaming down Hill Road to Ebey’s Landing for a look-see on the way out. This would be like half the town of Coupeville jumping in their cars and going somewhere all at once. Island County Planning assures me that, if the plan passes subsequent hurdles and proves to meet all the rules, that the right traffic controls would be put in place. What does that mean, a string of traffic lights on Engle Road?

2.The second major problem is that the plan calls for gutting the forest. I’m sad to say that our small group of homes in Sherhill Vista has learned a terrible lesson that should not be repeated by anyone. A few of our number cleared too much of their land, more than was necessary to build their homes. This opened up the rest of our forest to severe winds. Trees deeper in the forest that had grown up used to less wind suddenly had to endure its full force. The effect has been devastating, with a staggering number of blowdowns, some of trees 150 years old. Some snapped off 20-feet above the ground. Some uprooted due to the fact that the hard island sub-surface only allows shallow root systems. We are having to spend a tremendous amount of money and effort reforesting, but it will take more than a hundred years to regain what was lost and what contiues to be lost.

There are trees in the Camp Casey forest that are far older than ours. The tree on Hill Road that was killed by the bluff grass fire two summers ago was one foot in diameter and yet, because of the dry summers and howling winds, was 90 years old. Some of the Casey trees are more than 5-feet in diameter. The growth of trees slows as they get to be patriarchs. Think how old they are! As soon as the forest is opened up, exposing previously shielded trees to the wind, the rest of the forest will slowly but surely blow down, including the huge, ancient ones, gnarled, wind-shaped giants that a friend of ours calls “The Trees of Mystery.” This tragedy must be prevented.

3.The third major problem is that new houses in the developed northern 30 acres will be starkly visible from the Engle fields, effectively undoing much of the value of the $3.5 million development rights purchase, which was made to preserve the rural character and the unobstructed vista of Admiralty Inlet across the fields.

4.The fourth major problem is that the Camp Casey expansion plan does not integrate with the other plans for the Ebey’s Landing Historical Reserve and the state parks in the area. People have long discussed the desirability of a trail other than the beach that links Fort Ebey, Ebey’s Landing, and Fort Casey. When development rights of the Engle fields were purchased, the federal government purchased a strip of land outright along Engle Road for such a future connecting trail. The development of the northern 30 acres of the Camp Casey land will make that a trail to nowhere and end the dream of a connecting trail along the prairie and past the ancient trees.

All must agree to any plan changes

It is important to understand my central point. I am not advocating blocking all development at Camp Casey. I am not arguing for no change. It is important here, however, that there be a win-win, that everyone’s needs be met, Casey’s and the community’s. It is also important that what ends up being done makes common sense, takes into account the realities of scarce water, 70-plus m.p.h. winds, and shallow roots, and is on a scale that fits the area and safeguards its character. That cannot happen if plans are made and reviewed in secret, if Camp Casey takes the approach of “don’t confuse us with the facts, we want to do what we want to do.” That approach, rather than building a bridge to our community, is already building mistrust. It is time, even past time, for all of us who care deeply about the character of this area to rise up and insist upon being substantively involved.

The Camp Casey people have done everything legally and by the book, but they have carefully minimized involvement with most of the community. The impression they are giving is that they would like to bypass us, work in the shadows, and get approvals for all their plans quietly. It is time to shine the light of day on these proceedings and make sure that SPU planners in Seattle who know nothing of the specialness and the challenges of this place don’t irrevocably destroy the vision it has taken so many years to build. It is also time to let our own developer-friendly Island County Commissioners know that we have not become pushovers, that this is not a gimmee, that no one is being fooled, that the vision lives, and that they cannot slyly be party to subverting or dismantling it.

In that regard, the county commissioners’ meeting on Dec. 16 is listed in the paper as beginning at 10:30 a.m. Not mentioned is the fact that there will be opportunity for public comment some time between 9:30 and 10:30. Wouldn’t it be something if 500 people showed up. Maybe the commissioners will find that half an hour is insufficient for public comment. Maybe Camp Casey will find that this thing is not as far along as they think.

Bill Viertel lives in Coupeville.

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