Sound Off: New growth planning will shape the future


Nothing makes you as grateful for your community as holiday travel. That moment when you leave the island and merge into the melee of I-5 congestion is always a little anxiety-producing.

This year, as we made our trek to SeaTac, I noticed something for the first time, or at least I noticed it for the first time through the lens of local government.

It was just as we passed the U District and started traversing the Ship Canal Bridge, off to the left was the Space Needle, the iconic symbol that indisputably says “Seattle” and more largely “The Pacific Northwest.”

Over to the left of the Needle, distinctly separated by blocks of low-rise buildings and apartment complexes was a cluster of high rises that signaled the growth and economic vitality of the city. A noticeable change to the skyline.

Seattle is growing. It’s changing. And amid the pressures of redevelopment, it did something intentional to protect the visual identity of its place. It placed height restrictions on the growth around the Space Needle, ultimately ensuring that its emblematic significance would not be lost.

I was in the car, moving at a whopping 15 miles an hour, bemoaning all the congestion and making statements that only a true Washingtonian can make:

“Who are all these people?”

“What is happening to this city?”

“I feel like what made Seattle special is lost.”


And then I saw it. The Space Needle.

For the last few months Island County has been gearing up to do the 2024/25 Comprehensive Plan update. It is a policy document that outlines community values and assets. It is developed to reflect and protect what we cherish about our place, the things that make us grateful to call Island County home.

It also serves as the framework for the rules and regulations that guide our daily decisions.

It’s what the city of Seattle used to identify the value of the Space Needle and justify regulations that protected its visual significance. It is the document that speaks to who we are and what we value.

It is also a document that forces us to plan for growth. It does not let us stay just as we are, and it can’t protect us from longing for the “good old days.” The document stages important conversations about how the reality and pressures of growth interplays with our quality of life.

This update asks us to plan for roughly 15,000 new Island County residents in the next 20 years. It requires us to “assign” that population to different jurisdictions, and for the first time ever, it mandates that the housing needed to support that growth must serve all income levels.

It shifts more than 60% of that new growth to the City of Oak Harbor, City of Langley and Town of Coupeville, including the requirement to zone for housing, services, jobs, and provide parks, open space, roads, water and sewer.

How we do that and where growth happens is based on the values we embed in the comprehensive plan. We are being asked to manage change.

As someone who has watched our county grow, I have always tried to lean into the economic value and often personal prosperity that growth offers. But I will be honest, these new growth projections startled me.

How are we going to move all these people up and down the islands? What is the capacity load of our bridges? How long are we willing to wait for a ferry? Do we have services to support this larger population? Will we have the workforce to provide those services and housing the workforce can afford?

And getting back to the Space Needle: How are we going to balance all this growth and protect those “sense of place” elements we associate with Island living?

I hope you join me this holiday season to reflect on all we have that makes us grateful … starting with this beautiful, hospitable and irreplaceable place we call home. Further, I hope this reflection on what you value brings forward robust and meaningful discussion as we embark on our 2024/25 comprehensive plan update.

Jill Johnson is an Island County commissioner representing the district of Oak Harbor.