Sound Off: Let’s prioritize Island County’s iconic assets


Commissioner Jill Johnson is right when she describes the Space Needle and the planning that protects a Seattlewide view of the Needle as one of this region’s iconic elements (Whidbey News-Times Sound Off, 11/25/23), but I think this man-made icon is incomplete without its powerful and beautiful natural setting. Situated at the foot of Mount Rainier and on the edge of Puget Sound, the man-made Space Needle with its remarkable natural surroundings make the iconic combination that heartily says “The Pacific Northwest.”

Jill’s article got me thinking… what are Island County’s iconic elements? In contrast to urban Seattle, I suggest Island County’s natural settings, more than its man-made features, say “Island County.” Edged with more than 200 miles of shoreline essential to the marine ecosystems of Puget Sound, all parts of the county enjoy vistas of mountains and tidal waters, farms and forests.

I enjoy asking neighbors and visitors: “What brought you to our islands and what keeps you here?” Their responses tell me the county’s iconic natural setting is the element that attracts and holds people to this place — whether for work, retirement, vacations or a needed retreat.

Despite the county’s proximity to the city, the beauty and complexity of Whidbey and Camano islands make them oases in contrast to Seattle’s “busy-ness.”

Natural and ancient rhythms impact daily island life: tidal currents are shaped by submarine canyons gouged out by glaciers; local waters are traveled by Southern Resident killer whales and amazing anadromous salmon; and wetlands provide refuge to thousands of migrating birds on their seasonal travels.

Physical constraints of Island County’s “island-ness” also contrast with city life: well-water use dependent freshwater aquifers must be managed to avoid sea water intrusion; travel to the mainland from Whidbey must allow for ferry details, or bridge considerations for northern Whidbey and Camano; and there’s always the challenge of patience with slower drivers on the islands’ two-lane roads. These constraints are part of the contrast, and I suggest, at their best are part of the charm of island life.

As the county launches its new Comprehensive Plan, I encourage all decision makers and residents to work together to design a plan for Island County’s future that prioritizes our greatest assets — the iconic natural attributes of Whidbey and Camano islands. This is not at odds with well-planned hubs for denser populations in the county but suggests a deliberate focus to affirm, protect, restore, celebrate and share (with residents and visitors) our unique and fragile wealth of natural assets.

What might that mean? Here are some suggestions:

• Build an identity for Island County as a place to savor, explore and unwind in nature’s beauty

• Increase the amount of land set aside for hiking, birdwatching, biking and similar uses

• Enhance established sites for public access to the shore and add new sites

• Build a network of linked dedicated trails (apart from roads) for biking, walking and other non-motorized uses

• Retreat development from the water’s edge and from flood prone areas

• Add foot ferries to increase visitors without increasing traffic congestion

• Continue to expand bus service to encourage visiting without a car

What are your thoughts about Island County’s long-range plan and its “iconic” elements? All our voices matter.

Please participate in the Comprehensive Planning process at

Barbara Bennett is a Whidbey Island resident.