Editorial: Commissioners play hardball

Island County Commissioners made it clear last week that they’re playing hardball when the review of the critical areas ordinance gets under way.

They again hired hotshot land-use attorney Keith Dearborn to head the planning task under a $351,000 contract. To those who have fought the county’s planning efforts through the years, it’s like Michael Myers returning, with the same old hockey mask over his face.

The commissioners risked public outrage by hiring Dearborn again. During the comprehensive planning process, Dearborn’s firm was paid more than $700,000 and payments for his attorney duties were cut off by Island County Superior Court judges, who expressed shock at how much public money he was receiving.

Eventually, however, the comprehensive plan was completed, thanks in large part to Dearborn’s efforts, and in retrospect the cost didn’t look so bad. Island County got its plan done, while several adjoining counties continued to spend even more money and more time trying to finish their state-mandated plans.

Adding to the political heat last week was Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, who told the commissioners he had trained a deputy prosecutor in land use matters, anticipating taking the lead in the critical areas update. The three Republican commissioners rejected this offer of help from the Democratic prosecutor, choosing instead the $351,000 outsider.

It’s easy to surmise why the commissioners chose Dearborn. He’s one of the top experts statewide in the comprehensive planning process, he knows the desires of Island County government, and he’s proven he can get the bulk of a plan past the Growth Management Hearings Board and through court appeals.

To the general public, the controversy points out just how critical the critical areas ordinance is to the commissioners. One example, as environmentalists have already pointed out, is Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland, which has applied for a major boatyard expansion. It sits across the road from critical shoreline habitat, and directly next to a significant wetland. Setback requirements could well decide the fate of the expansion project. Who knows what other development projects could be affected if setbacks from a wetland, for example, are dictated at 100-feet rather than 25-feet?

The Dearborn signing shows that, as always, our county commissioners’ top priority is economic development, with environmental protection second in importance.

It’s also a heads-up to the public to watch the critical areas update carefully. The commissioners are sparing no expense in trying to get things done their way, but money can be offset by public involvement.

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