County comp plan update may bring change

Island County officials started project that will help shape the community for the next 20 years.

Island County officials are embarking on a complex project that will take about a year and a half to complete and will help shape the community for the next 20 years.

The comprehensive plan, required under the Growth Management Act, is the county’s centerpiece, long-range planning document and contains policies, visions and goals for the community. It is intended to guide county decision-making, codes and day-to-day actions.

Emily Neff, the long-range planner leading the effort, said the update could have significant impacts on the community. A new law amended the Growth Management Act to require local governments “to plan and accommodate housing affordable at all income levels.”

In addition, the update will have a climate resiliency element for the first time. The county is hiring a consultant to help with that section.

Significantly, and possibly controversially, is the housing allocations over the 20-year window. Neff explained that the proposed housing allocation pushes a greater percentage of growth into municipalities.

The current plan allocates two-thirds of growth into unincorporated areas of the county. The proposal from the Countywide Planning Group cuts that to 27%, which means Coupeville, Langley and especially Oak Harbor have to accommodate the bulk of growth. The proposal is for Oak Harbor to take 63% of housing growth, or about 5,500 housing units, which would increase the city’s population by about 50% over 20 years.

Coupeville would be allocated 4% of housing growth, which is 350 housing units, and Langley gets 5%, or 446 units.

Neff explained that the new allocation would follow the the most basic principles of the Growth Management Act, which is to direct growth into urban areas “where jobs, infrastructure and services exist to support diverse housing types.”

Yet Commissioner Jill Johnson, the sole Republican on the board, predicts that the municipalities will not be happy about the allocations because it will require big investments in infrastructure and services as well as an increase in housing density.

In addition, she worries that it would drive low-income people out of rural areas where they can live off the land.

“It eliminates the idea that anyone other than the wealthy can afford to live in a rural environment,” she said.

Next Tuesday, the commissioners are scheduled to adopt a population projection of 102,639 by the year 2045, which is needed to help guide the comprehensive plan update. The current population is about 87,000. The population projection is the medium projection from the state Office of Financial Management.

County officials, staff and advocates emphasize the importance of community engagement and input in the process of updating the comprehensive plan. Neff said the county is planning a first community meeting in February and will soon have a unique website dedicated to the process which will allow for two-way communication.

“This is an opportunity for the community to come together and lay out our vision for the future of Island County,” said Marnie Jackson, executive director of Whidbey Environmental Action Network. “The best possible process will be one where public input is abundant and taken to heart by planning commission members and our county commissioners and turn it into a plan that will set a course for the most healthy and resilient future.”