By COMMISSIONER JILL JOHNSON
I like math. I like the certainty of it. The fact that one plus one equals two is affirming. There is no debate. It’s just this undisputed foundational truth that we can all agree upon. Simple. Easy. Clear.
So, you would think that the next big step in the comprehensive planning process, population allocation, would be the easiest. It’s just simple math.
You take the number of people projected to move to Island County in the next 20 years (15,000), look at the number of cities and towns in our county (three), and “assign” a majority of the population to those towns based on things like past growth trends, access to employment and (newly required from the State of Washington) income and assign a percentage of growth to each jurisdiction.
Easy. That is until we increased the population of the town of Langley by more 60%, a level of growth that could change community culture and push the costs of providing public infrastructure out-of-reach.
So as the kids would say, “that math ain’t math-ing.”
Which reminded me of why I never once earned an “A” in math. For all its upside, math never fully embraced my academic strengths. There was no wiggle-room, no negotiation and no “let-me-try-and-spin-my-answer-so-you-see-it-my-way” outcome.
Math doesn’t account for other truths. And in the case of population allocations those subjective truths are equally, if not more, important. They include how we want to live, the cultures we want to protect, the infrastructure we can afford to build and the personal rights we hold as individuals.
Math has limits and it doesn’t care about real life, which makes this first big decision point of the comprehensive plan hard. We are told to do a homework assignment where the “right” answer could ultimately be different than our “right” answer.
But honestly, who cares? It’s only a plan. Put it on paper, assign the population, give the State the answer they want, collect your “A,” and go home. And, to a degree, that approach works; until you look further into the process. Because what comes next, after we tell the state how we will allocate this population, is the regulatory framework that they will require us to show how to put the plan into action.
What codes must the county write to incentivize people to build in cities and not in the rural areas? Will we limit the issuance of permits in unincorporated Island County? What could it mean for people who own property that want to build on their own land?
Will we increase setbacks and regulatory restrictions resulting in more undevelopable lots? Should we increase the minimum lot size from one house per five acres to one house per ten? How will government use its regulatory power to social engineer the mathematical population allocation it’s tasked with achieving?
And how will this work with affordable housing? Are we prepared to say that only people of certain incomes can afford to live in un-incorporated Island County?
Are we prepared to tell our cities that they will be responsible for providing the density of housing needed for lower-income households, as well as all the support services required to sustain that population?
Does our math formula allow us to address the equity impacts of “placing” people of lower incomes inside cities with higher utility costs and tax rates?
Are we comfortable sacrificing the environmental health, mobility and community culture of those who live in our towns to protect the scenic vistas and natural resources of our rural residents? Are we prepared to protect the privilege enjoyed by some, at the expense of others? Who gets to live the “Island County” lifestyle?
The comprehensive planning process is designed to help government plan for growth to ensure we have the public infrastructure and natural resources to support it. It is also a robust process that asks us to reflect on our values to ensure we develop policies and codes to protect and enhance them.
If the foundation of all our work is simply math, then we have two options: accept the results of the current formula or speak out and change the inputs into the equation.
Jill Johnson is an Island County commissioner who represents Oak Harbor.