Commissioner candidates convene in Clinton for forum

The forum – the first of its kind on South Whidbey since the pandemic – attracted over 100 people.

Island County commissioner candidates for District 1 were greeted by a packed house at the Clinton Community Hall June 25.

The public forum – the first of its kind on South Whidbey since the COVID-19 pandemic – attracted well over 100 attendees. Those who didn’t arrive early enough to claim a seat stood in doorways, the hall’s kitchen and even outside the building to catch a glimpse of the speakers.

Republican Wanda Grone, Democrat Marie Shimada, Republican Steven Myres and Democrat and incumbent Melanie Bacon discussed everything from infrastructure to affordable housing to climate change during the hour-long nonpartisan moderated forum hosted by the Clinton Community Council in partnership with Sno-Isle Libraries.

When asked how they would “deal” with the county’s homeless population and individuals with mental illness and substance abuse issues, the candidates were in agreement about providing them with the necessary resources to get better.

“It’s not against the law to be crazy,” said Bacon, who had the first crack at answering the question. “It’s not against the law to be homeless.”

Grone said she didn’t like the idea of people sleeping on sidewalks or streets more than anyone else, but she believes future facilities to help them should be located in Oak Harbor, closer to where other services exist.

Shimada emphasized the importance of supporting services provided in local school districts for youth who may struggle with mental health or other issues. Myres echoed this sentiment and also suggested countering a “lack of hope” in youth by working with different community groups to get young people into trade organizations.

On the subject of balancing increased population growth with environmental protections, Myres supported the county working with developers, contractors and landowners through the development process. Grone, who is the current finance director for the city of Langley, spoke about her past experience with corporate partnerships in Issaquah to build a highway interchange.

Bacon said this topic may be the single most important thing in the county comprehensive plan and added that code enforcement needs more officers and more “teeth.” Shimada highlighted her time as manager of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and said she wanted to continue to increase partnerships with the municipal governments about what the planning departments would like to see achieved.

Answers for how to respond to the county’s affordable housing crisis differed.

Bacon pointed to her involvement with several projects as county commissioner, including permanent supportive housing, which she said the county needs 500 places for short-term stays but currently has none. Another project she indicated was workforce housing, which she defined as households making between 80 and 120% of average median income. An audible whistle sounded throughout the room when she said the average median income for a household in Island County is about $95,000.

Grone advocated looking into housing being built on publicly owned properties belonging to school districts, port districts or other entities. She expressed admiration for Habitat for Humanity’s sweat-equity model, which requires homeowners who qualify for the program to put work into building their homes.

Shimada said she didn’t have any doubts that the county is currently trying to address this issue.

“I think what we need to do more is public-private partnership, both in the area of literally building and working on those projects, but also the area of working with our community partners to help advocate for what the need is among community members who don’t yet think that we need affordable housing in this community,” she said.

Myres recommended making a change in how building permits are currently processed, pointing to past projects where he as a small business owner had to wait two years to obtain a permit.

The candidates were less straightforward when it came to the question about whether they would support taxes or fees for short-term rentals and seasonally vacant homes with the proceeds dedicated to developing affordable housing.

Bacon recognized the impact this has on the rental market and said the county comprehensive plan is going to look at short-term rentals and what other jurisdictions are doing to find a solution.

Grone pointed out that owners of short-term rentals like Airbnb already pay lodging taxes which are used for the promotion of tourism.

“I think that you have to remember that if you punish these homeowners that lend out their house for vacation rentals too much, they’re going to come back and affect the tourism, the taxes we get from that, the revenue we get in our area businesses from visitors,” she said.

Shimada said she would support it, but not if a better solution was brought forth by community members. She also would not support it for structures currently owned by full-time Island County residents.

Myres was not in favor of raising taxes for people who have a second home on Whidbey and lease it out to friends and family when they’re not there.

The majority of candidates agreed that they would support a code change that would add fireworks to a type 1 burn ban. Grone professed she wasn’t a fan of the big booms and added that she supported having the fire districts act as the fire marshal, rather than the county sheriff. As the child of a firefighter, Shimada said she was aware of wildfire risk. Bacon, who has been trying to get the private use of fireworks banned in her district, was also on board. Myres, however, questioned if this action would affect public displays of fireworks.

Candidates fielded multiple questions about saltwater intrusion and the impact of sea level rise on shoreline properties.

Myres suggested using desalination plants for the affected wells and working towards conserving water.

“Allowing people to protect their property is one of the key elements of homeownership,” he said.

Bacon said saltwater intrusion into aquifers hasn’t happened yet, but it’s something to prepare for in the future. For the homes threatened by flooding, she encouraged moving them back, putting them on stilts or using soft shore armoring.

Grone hoped that with the county’s rewriting of the building code, some of the inconsistencies could be eliminated and people could better protect their homes, which might include a concrete wall.

Shimada said she wished the county had forward-thinking leadership that had thought to do a study on water prior to being “months deep” in the comprehensive plan update. She added that she is in the race for county commissioner because a year ago an elected official in Coupeville told her that they had no plans to address sea level rise because they would be dead by then.

Primary election day is Aug. 6.

Wanda Grone addresses the room of voters. (Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record)

Wanda Grone addresses the room of voters. (Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record)

Steven Myres answers a question at the forum while his opponent, Marie Shimada, looks on. (Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record)

Steven Myres answers a question at the forum while his opponent, Marie Shimada, looks on. (Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record)