Whidbey Environmental Action Network has appealed Oak Harbor’s attempt to expand its Urban Growth Area (UGA). Amazingly, the Island County Planning Department has determined that there will be no significant adverse environmental impacts from covering 105 acres of farmland with 352 houses and roads around a creek and in the headwaters of a coastal lagoon used by 10 percent of all bird species in Washington.
No significant adverse environmental impacts? No polluted runoff into the creek, the lagoon, and then Puget Sound? No rushing runoff from the roofs and pavement replacing soil that soaks up the rain? No disturbance to wildlife from the activities of a 1,000 people? Lets get serious.
And this expansion is only the start. Last year’s proposal to also turn the other 272 acres of the Fakkema farmland into a city is still very much alive and kicking. If and when that happens, there will be a nearly solid wall of urban development across North Whidbey, a barrier preventing wildlife movement and dispersal to South Whidbey. Conservation scientists call this habitat fragmentation. Fragmented populations of plants and animals are much more likely to go extinct, since neither their numbers or gene pools can be replenished by interaction with other populations.
And Oak Harbor doesn’t need to expand. In 2004 the city Planning Department conducted a “land capacity analysis,” a study of how much additional development could be absorbed over the next 20 years within the existing Urban Growth Area and with the proposed expansion. The conclusion was the existing UGA could hold 106 percent of Oak Harbor’s expected population in 2025. With the proposed expansion, the UGA would be large enough to hold 126 percent of the expected population.
But these figures greatly underestimate the capacity of the UGA. In making their study, the planners assumed that future development would be like the development that occurred from 1998 to 2004. But in the three years since then, development in Oak Harbor has been at much greater intensity than assumed in the study. There have been 24 large developments since then that together total over 1,200 new dwelling units. Developers, the market, and their customers are saying they want Oak Harbor to become a more dense urban area, rather than continue its historical pattern of spread out low density urban sprawl. And while actual development is speaking loud and clear, those governing the city don’t seem to be listening.
Cities don’t exist in isolation from their surroundings. The rural areas that surround cities supply them with essential and free environmental services, including clean air, water, and a place where people can go for respite from the urban activity that defines cities and makes them attractive. But when cities sprawl ever outward they not only consume the countryside, they become less desirable as places to live. And the urban services within the city become more expensive to provide.
Oak Harbor has a choice. It can grow up or it can grow out. And the decision the city makes will have effects far outside of the city proper. It will play a part in determining whether Puget Sound continues its steady polluted decline and whether wildlife populations on Central and South Whidbey are viable over the long run. It will determine if North Whidbey becomes one more sprawling ill-defined ‘urb that looks and feels like every other sprawling ill-defined ‘urb.
While WEAN’s legal challenge to the UGA expansion may protect the environment for now, the choice ultimately will be made by the people of Oak Harbor.
Steve Erickson of Langley is a co-founder of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network.