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Island Guardian

New Management, New Attitude

Over the past years, dealing with the CD&PD (Community Development and Planning Department) has been a frustrating experience for islanders; now not so much. It appears that there is positive change now taking place within the department.

The ideas of customer service and rational interpretations of regulations seems to be taking hold. The new Director of the Department, Sam Gibboney and John Geniuch Building Official-Plans Examiner don't appear to be the standard government issue business-as-usual bureaucrats.

Thank goodness.

I am hopeful that this department can break out of the past pattern of doing what ever some mainland county cooked up, and support how different it is, and should be, in the islands.

Being a rural county blessed with a population of exceptional citizens and a clean environment that stands heads above the rest, we have been doing a lot that is correctt.

There is more we should be doing.

The owner-builder program helps working families own a home. The owner-builder option is unique in the State and should be encouraged. Past administrations have placed new restrictions on the program that reduces its value to working families and young people trying to make it here.

John Geniuch is exploring how to have a fast lane for simple permits like the "10 items or less" in the grocery store. Past practice has been to allow standard permits to back up behind a complex application with a "first in first out" philosophy.

There is not much favorable I can say about the Critical Areas Ordinance saga except that much of the foolishness that is in the recently passed ordinance may not have happened had Ms. Gibboney been the department head when the CAO was drafted.

The cost of permits for both building and land use and the added costs of regulatory compliance studies should be a topic for review by the CD&P Department and the Council.

The overall cost of meeting County fees and requirements is a significant burden to building and living in San Juan County. Charges that may seem reasonable to County staff who are very well paid with paychecks arriving like clock work need to remember that things are not so profitable or assured for those operating in the private sector, or living on retirement savings.

A final thought is that the Building and Planning staff and the Council need to recognize half baked notions and fuzzy ideas when they are presented by State agencies and our local swarms of gadflies.

It would be a welcome change if those in County government first clearly defined and understood a problem before hatching regulations and expenses on the citizens of San Juan County.

We are a rural County even though most of our citizens don't drive a tractor and wear bib overalls. Keeping our rural lifestyle actually takes more thought and effort than planning new urban developments on the mainland.

Burlington was planned to be what it is. In San Juan County our environmental issues are nothing like the mainland. With no big industries or runoff from miles of paved parking lots and streets, we don't need the mainland style of regulation.

Community Development and Planning can show intelligence and leadership by recognizing the value of what we have and not treating us like Kirkland.

Maybe the new Council and the new leadership in CD&P can turn us in the right direction.

John B Evans: Columnist for The Island Guardian, Farmer and nurseryman in Doe Bay, County Commissioner for 12 years, Executive Director of SJC Builders Association, and one of the founding members of Citizens For Responsible Government, a not-for-profit & a non-partisan corporation

Protecting Environments

It is a fundamental law of nature that all things are either growing or decaying. Nothing in nature is standing still. The same applies to communities: healthy growth or the opposite; Detroit, a remarkable example of decline.

At the Eastsound Plan and Review Committee meeting this week, County planner Colin Maycock volunteered that the projection for the future population of the islands shows a decline.

We have been told for years by County Planning and the environmental folks that San Juan County is growing rapidly and that we need to do one thing or another to protect our island quality of life from untamed growth. Apparently the projections for growth were wrong.

Mr. Maycock said that our demographic mix from the census and from the Washington State Office of Finance shows us as having a much older population than other counties, no overall population growth, and a shrinking middle class.

We are spending huge amounts of time and money on a Comprehensive Plan and Critical Areas Ordinance that is claimed to be necessary to protect our environment from humans and related development. It is time to switch gears and invest time and money toward growing a healthy community along with a healthy environment. The singular emphasis on one GMA Element, protecting Critical Areas, while ignoring the other 13 elements, from housing to transportation, is a serious mistake.

One thing that would help the future health of our community is to have a change in our community’s mindset on how we view our surroundings. I think it is fair to say that generally, folks see a new home being built and respond with a sigh of regret because some trees were cut to make way for the home.

We applaud the Land Bank for buying and extinguishing development rights on properties. Some would like to turn our farm land back to trees and brush. In Friday Harbor the new waterfront plan for the area that burned seems to be destined to be a park and not replacing the commercial businesses that provided jobs and tax revenue. On Lopez there was quite a dustup about the expansion, again good jobs and tax revenue, of the Islanders resort. On Orcas, Rosario Resorts master plan was likewise controversial.

We can all add other developments to the list. It would be helpful if we could learn to recognize that change and progress are essential for a healthy vibrant community. A shrinking population and a struggling economy will eventually destroy the quality of life we all treasure.

My point is that our local elected officials and our citizens should recognize that we are a community with a small and shrinking middle class and in danger of becoming a “gated community” for the wealthy. We seem to be able to rally behind replacing land approved for development with new parks and set-asides for wildlife. Public policy tends toward discouraging and restricting development on land already designated for development.

What we are missing is an ability to rally in favor of a healthy economy or community. Building businesses and homes, productive jobs and occupations, upward mobility, and a value placed on maintaining a diverse and balanced community are in some ways hard for some leaders in the islands to understand and embrace. Parks and cute wildlife are easier to hug than a construction worker or an auto mechanic, and yet we require both, and more, as parts of a balanced community.

Constructive improvements to infrastructure in the islands, encouraging jobs and businesses, housing that is available, affordable and suitable for working families, making decisions to enhance our islands as an affordable, safe and secure place to raise a family needs the public’s attention at least as much as caring for a plant or bird.

It is time to rethink what is important for a healthy community.

Council members should ask themselves before taking any action: “Is this going to truly benefit our citizens and does the action support a healthy community?”

As citizens we need to rethink our priorities, preserve our high quality environment to be sure, but also encourage those who are building homes and businesses that contribute to the vitality of the economic and social environment of our islands.

Improving our quality of life is much more complex than the singular focus on protecting the physical environment.

Looking Forward

This is the time of year for reflection and to consider personal goals and priorities for the coming year.

Seeing that I am so close to perfection myself, I thought I might pass along some notes on goals and priorities for the rest of you, and in particular, for our County Council.

Let give some thought to finding ways to do more for our youngest citizens.

As parents and a community one of the most important things we can accomplish is to give young people growing up in our community the best tools and the most encouragement we can muster.

San Juan County can be a very rough place for young families to make a decent living. This often means children in the household don’t get the best from stressed overworked parents. When the Council is making budget and program decisions in County government, lets ask if, and how, this action is going to benefit our working families and their children. We can do much better.

Lets also ask why our community spends massive dollars, (well past a million dollars), and endless time fussing over salmon. Contrary to the shouting of the salmon lobby, the reality is that island residents have very little to do with the ebb and flow of salmon populations.

It would be a welcome change if the emphasis of our County government centered less on fish and insects and more on serious issues such as violence in the home; mental illness; drug and alcohol abuse; the stress in single parent households; affordable and appropriate housing; adult education, and issues facing our seniors living in the islands.

Maybe we can be proactive and try something different. How about a “Living in the Islands” pamphlet that is sent to each and every new home and property owner at the close of their purchase.

The pamphlet could explain what steps are important to build or live on the shoreline (the Mar Vista matter), what County and non-profit programs and services are available and how to contact them, why we continue to encourage development and activities that are consistent with the rural quality of life we are trying to maintain.

The recent “crisis” of 1/4 acre of brush that was cut on the shoreline at Mar Vista, or the over-the-top actions of a few, relative to the relocation of a Customs office , seem so petty compared to real issues and problems our community should be concerned with.

This next year, lets try to do better for our children, our working families and our seniors and lets get real about priorities.

Bullying For The Collective Common Good

There is a small but loud group of individuals on San Juan Island, calling themselves “the Alliance?” who are opposed to the US Customs and Border Protection Agency renting the former Windermere offices in Friday Harbor. Some things just don’t change.

I am old enough to remember when self appointed groups objected to people of color or different ethnic background moving into the neighborhood. In their small minds, “those people” were bad for businesses and lowered property values.

I am old enough to remember when self-appointed groups made an issue of candidate John Kennedy’s religion in the presidential election. He was Catholic. Small minds speculated the United States would be ruled from the Vatican.

I am old enough to remember when those of the Jewish faith were unwelcome and not allowed to participate in “self-selecting organizations, private clubs and fraternities.”

It is sad and amazing to see that this “community group think” (different issues but still as blatant) is alive and well on San Juan Island. Those folks objecting at the US Customs/Border Protection meeting would have fit right in at the Salem witch trials.

It is beyond my comprehension that there are enough people with such an inflated opinion of themselves to fill a hall with their prejudices against a Federal agency charged with protecting us and our borders.

Since when is the Customs agency signing a lease in a properly zoned building in Friday Harbor any sort of issue?. Where does a notion come from that a property owner who enters into a rental agreement with a tenant must first get approval from some self appointed group?

I guess I should not be surprised. There is an island pressure group that has successfully made a living for years contesting the rights of citizens to use their property in accordance with the law. Tried to build a dock or sell a bed and breakfast?

Or, how dare someone be appointed to serve on the SJC Planning Commission without the express approval of yet another “progressive” community interest group?

I guess this expression of community interest should be a wake-up call. There are some other folks in the islands who had best watch out for the keepers of the public good. You might be in their sights next.
Here is a partial list; There are shop owners with clothing made in sweat shops in India or trinkets from China made with slave labor. The restaurant that isn’t gluten-free or GMO compliant best watch out. The person who lives in a home that is just “too big.”

How about the small business owners who do not pay their employees at least the net $30 an hour that is considered a “living wage” in the islands. Then there are those troublesome second home owners who leave their homes unused when they are off island.

Lets not even begin to talk about all those darn tourists in the summer.

It is a long list of “ain’t it awfuls” for the self-appointed community busy bodies to deal with. Given a bit more time, rest assured the various iterations of the “Alliances For Total Control Group” will make darn sure you are compliant with their philosophy or else! Even the Chamber and the Visitors Bureau seems to be sucked into this group think. Pathetic; really.

What A Change

Over the past few years the machinations of the 6-member County Council has proved to be a painful experiment in local government for the public, for County staff and I expect for some of the Council members themselves.

What a difference a Charter change to a 3-member Council has made. And, what a difference in the recent conduct of the 3 new elected Council members compared to the past.

We now have 3 elected representatives who have the needs and aspirations of our citizens front and center. Their meetings and discussions are thoughtful, informative and are conducted in front of the public, and no longer behind closed doors.

They seem to be willing and able to have a constructive interaction with their legal advisor, Randy Gaylord, the San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney. What a difference from the past Councils. This fact alone will be helpful to everyone within our County government and to the end product that is delivered to our citizens.

The new County Manager seems to be a quick study. He is being treated as a member of the team, not as a visiting professor tutoring the Council. Our three new Council members have confidence in their role and appear to consider the new County Manager as a team member, not a coach.

Another healthy change is that our new Council is asking thoughtful questions of staff about the various programs the department managers oversee.

The Council is looking at the various grant funding streams, reporting relationships, and discussing how to improve customer service at many levels. They are looking at the fees being charged for various required permits to see if the dollar cost is beyond what is reasonable for the citizens to pay.

I am very encouraged by what I have seen so far. The three new Council members the voters chose seem to have their feet on the ground. Their priorities places the citizen’s expectations first and they seem well seated toward bringing a more responsive and friendly local government to San Juan County.

I expect the hard working County staff will appreciate a working environment that is far less confrontational than it had been allowed to become by the previous Councils.

After the goings on in the Courthouse with the past Councils it is very refreshing to see our local government begin to work for the citizens. Great job so far!

Two Topics On My Mind.....

Illegal Private Meetings:

I am not sure why our County Council has had trouble with the legal requirement to conduct all of the County’s business in publicly noticed open Council sessions.

Doing the public’s business in public is fundamental to our representative democracy. The only exception is Executive Sessions that are only allowed under the law to deal with a specific issue of an employee matter, lawsuits against the County and property acquisitions.

One problem getting this in place may be that the three new Council members and the County Clerk do not have an “institutional memory” of how to work within the open meetings requirements.

The past 6-member Council seemed to think that they could not get things accomplished if they had to do their work in front of the people who elected them. They did a lot out of the public’s view, including much of the Critical Areas Ordinance the 6-member Council voted for and passed last December.

After all the confusion around the Council meetings held on Mondays. it appears that the Council now understands. It is a good thing for the Council to have meetings to discuss issues of concern to one or all members of the Council; and by doing so in open discussions gives all parties some background to consider before any formal actions are begun.

If there are housekeeping issues such as setting agendas, or planning a Council trip to the Gulf Islands that is not required to be “noticed” as the law requires, it is very simple matter to conduct the discussion at arms length through the Clerk of the Board. An important part of the Clerks job is to be that avenue for these types of communications.

Back in the day, I had 12 years of experience as a San Juan County Commissioner working under the mandate of “doing the public’s business in public.” I can say that honoring this requirement of an elected officials job is simple to do and never caused any difficulty.

Hammer The Citizens With Appeals and Suits:

The Friends of the San Juans are always looking for more foot soldiers to help them in their legal actions against the County and against our citizens. They seem to have a policy that they will challenge every dock application, every shoreline protection permit, nearly all development activities within the shoreline, and are moving against citizens who own property and wish to use that property in the uplands. Mostly these complaints are frivolous but they are getting away with running applicants through the wringer.

When a citizen has met all the permit requirements for a project within the 200 foot shoreline they soon find themselves being strung out with frivolous Friends appeals. The cost for the property owner mounts quickly.

Aerial Reconnaissance

Apparently the County Council has agreed to pay a company something north of $100,000 to take detailed reconnaissance aerial photographs of the homes and land in San Juan County. These photo’s will include photo’s of your home from all sides, not just overhead.

The Council motion that put this into play began with a Stan Mathews and Bob Jean request. The Council majority agreed to do the aerial reconnaissance if the County Fire Chiefs Association would find it useful voted to help pay for it. This did not happen, as San Juan and Orcas Fire Districts declined.

Stan and Bob decided the Council motion had wiggle room. They went forward and signed the County up. The always decisive Council has let the Stan and Bob picture show go forward absent an agreement that the Fire Chiefs would support it.

For the record, newly re-elected Councilman Bob Jarman and Council member Mark Florenza both voted no,

The other two re-elected Council members, Rick Hughes and Jamie Stevens, approved this new tool for the County to monitor what county citizens might be up to. Outgoing Council members Rich Peterson and Patty Miller voted approval as well, but Councilmember Rich Peterson had assumed it would not go forward unless all the fire chiefs supported it.

Now some are saying, “What’s the big deal with aerial reconnaissance unless you have something on your property to hide from the County’s enforcement folks or whom ever else buys into the program?”

It is amazing how shallow the thinking is on this. Most people, especially in rural San Juan County, consider their privacy to be important. That includes not having the County, or who ever pays money into the program, go poking around everyone’s back yard to see what they can see.

For most folks personal privacy has nothing to do with whether you have done something the County or someone might question on your property. It is about preserving a fundamental right to be left alone; to have at least one bit of sanctuary and security in an increasingly complex and confrontational world.

Think of this as one step closer to the County coming into your property and checking out it out for whatever: “We are the government. We are in charge. We are here to direct your life whether you like it or not.”

I hope the public remembers how quickly the Council could find the unbudgeted $100,000 plus for this venture, (not to mention this goes on every three years for a nine year contract) when they claim to be operating on a shoestring. Remember, the Council will be back, hat in hand, asking for another special tax levy in a year or two!

One suggestion. If you have a low flying plane crisscrossing over your house, run out and give it the one finger salute. That is about the only satisfaction you are going to get in this latest County folly.

Critical Areas Ordinance Delay

San Juan County is legally required to follow the planning rules of the Washington State Growth Management Act. This includes a requirement to periodically review, and if necessary, update the elements of our County Comprehensive Plan.

The County has instead spent 6 years and hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars, (like the infamous Alaska “bridge to nowhere”) writing a brand new Critical Areas Ordinance.

As a result the new ordinance is so complex, and has so many unanswered questions about how it can be implemented, that no one ..... the County staff, the planner who wrote it, the Council or the public know what the thing really says, or how to apply when evaluation development permits.

The original State GMA requirement was not that complicated. The job was to review the existing ordinance. in the existing Comprehensive Plan, and see if it was adequately protecting critical areas.

The Council and staff decided the State requirement to consider Best Available Science (BAS) when drafting rules for protecting critical areas really meant that BAS should be blindly applied to all aspects of the new ordinance.

The problem with the science reports the County choose to adopt as BAS is that the science invariably selected indicates the only way to totally protect anything is to exclude any human interface with whatever you want to protect, by the use of the precautionary principle , which was interpreted to me that harm might happen if humans are allowed near the “natural” environment.

The Council and staff also decided that, by their standards, virtually all the landscape of the islands was, either as a critical area, or that extensive buffers are necessary to protect what the decided -based on the BAS- was critical.

As a result many of our existing homes and yards, farms, rural lands, the shorelines and much of the undeveloped property became either a nonconforming existing use or could not be developed at all.

if the premise for an action is faulty in the beginning, no amount of writing, policy changes and twists and turn is going to make it right. In construction terms, if the foundation of the building is faulty it really doesn’t matter what you build on top of that foundation; it isn’t going to work!

The obvious answer is to do what should have been done in the beginning; do an assessment of the conditions of the natural environment that exists in the islands, and if there are clearly identified areas where the existing ordinance is failing to protect some particular critical area, draft a fix.

In the drafting of that fix, once againconsiderr, but don’t just blanket apply, best available science. With that, the State requirement is met, and more important we will be able to move forward with a healthy natural environment that is shared by people, our homes and farms and wild things.

This simple answer is not likely to happen.

Elected officials and bureaucrats really hate to admit they screwed up, especially a screw up this big. Lovel Pratt and Jamie Stephens both served on the prior Council that guided this train wreck. They both hope to get elected to continue to send the County down the same path we have been on .... further off into the weeds. Lisa Byers seems to think the current CAO is OK.

The likely outcome if these 3 folks are elected to the new 3-member Council, they will find a bigger hammer and keep pounding their square CAO peg into the round hole that otherwise logical community planning and the State rules actually require.

The public can hope that with the lawsuits by CAPR and appeals to the Growth Hearing Board by the Friends, CSA, the Builders Association and Bill Wright, will cause either the Growth Management Hearings Board or the Superior Court judge to give the citizens of San Juan County the hammer they need to compel the County officials and staff to finally do it right.

None of this had to happen. What a waste of time and money.

Tom Bauschke
John Evans
Mary Kalbert
Ron Keeshan
Gordy Petersen
Janice Peterson
Bruce Sallan
Terra Tamai
Amy Wynn
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