Letters to Editor
To Contact the Editor
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.
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
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.
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.
Out Of Balance
I guess it is to be expected that some folks are getting pretty up tight. The County’s CAP (Critical Areas Ordinance) is very controversial. There are multiple appeals of the CAO Ordinance to the Growth Hearings Board.
The primary elections being conducted are serious for the public and a general election is to follow.
A law suit to undo the recently passed Charter revisions headed for arguments in court. “Council Community Conversations” are being conducted, four on each of the ferry islands. Classes are being held by CD&P (Community Development & Planning) this month on what the CAO actually says. And the update on the Shoreline regulations is looming this summer.
No doubt I have missed one or two big ticket issues. Everyone who has a concern about any of these issues ..... or any interest in repairing our local governance ..... is a bit on edge.
For me it goes back to asking the simple question. What is so seriously wrong with our island communities that we need to be putting ourselves through all this angst?
To the point; no one has ever actually shown what is wrong with our current environmental and land use and development regulations. Our marine waters are classified as pristine. We have been and continue to set extensive land areas aside as natural with no development allowed through the Land Bank and Preservation Trust. Our rural pattern of development is giving nature’s animals lots of elbow room to do their thing. The list of things we have done and are doing right is extensive.
From my perspective, what we -County government and elected officials- are not spending enough time or energy on planning efforts of how to better meet the needs of the people who live here. Instead we are spending an inordinate amount of time, effort and money on calculating buffer widths for a wetland. The County’s wetlands already rated 8 on a scale of 10 .... far better than most places in Western Washington .... and all accomplished under the existing regulations. It would be silly if it were not such a boondoggle and misapplication of resources.
The endangered species in the islands are our middle class working families, local businesses and their owners and employees who are hanging on by their finger tips ... if at all, or citizens who try to do the right thing and run into onerous fees for permits that are not that different from what a bookie might be changing for a loan, and rules so complex the County is conducting classes -even for the staff- on how to make sense of them.
I suggest we all take a deep breath, choose candidates in this election who can put our community back on a rational track to sensible government and tone down the partisan electioneering. It is my sense that candidates who think more government is the answer are not themselves the answer.
If we elect reasonable people to office who are more citizen oriented and if the Friends of the San Juans with their hired muscle were to close up shop and go out of business, there would be no need for Commons Sense Alliance or Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, or the law suits, or the appeals to the Growth Hearings Board.
In other words, how much better it could be if our elected officials, the County’s employees, and our citizens could concentrate on how to provide an opportunity to achieve a better quality of life for the children, the families and the retired citizens in the islands.
It is a very poor outcome when we spend so much unnecessary time and money “protecting” the scenic and natural environment that is already protected and our pride, when the problems on the human side of the ledger are so much greater, and far more critical.
The Carnac Permit System; Many Questions, Few Answers
Sometimes dissimilar things are more alike then we imagined. So it is with the similarities between the federal government’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, (generally called Obama Care) and the County’s new Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO).
In both cases no one knows for sure what the regulations say.
In the case of the County’s Critical Areas Ordinance, the County is now scheduling two all-day workshops for architects, designers contractors and builders to try to explain the new CAO to building professionals. To date there is no instruction planed for suffering property owners trying to navigate the Ordinance.
I have a mental image of future owner/applicants facing a stressed and befuddled County staff permit person in a turban ...... a reincarnation of the famous Late Night with Johnny Carson character Carnac, complete with a nonsensical answer to a permit request presented in a sealed envelope.
When an Ordinance is written that is so complicated that permit staff or building professionals need extensive classes to figure out what it might be intended to say, something is very wrong.
In both cases the actual costs of the regulations are unknown.
No economic impact analysis was done by the County on what the costs will be to property owners to get the required approvals under the Ordinance. Further, there is no estimate on the effects on property values for the homes that have not been called non-conforming but will now be treated as non- conforming if the owner applies for a permit. Likewise, there is no cost estimate for the expected cancellation of future projects due to costs associated with complying with the Ordinance.
In both cases, Obama Care and the Critical Areas Ordinance, were passed in a hurry at the last minute.
The Critical Areas Ordinance would have benefited from a more careful analysis of what the Ordinance was going to require, not only from the property owner, but also from county staff.
In both cases, the proponents of the new regulations are telling the public not to worry.
The past Council and the staff planner who wrote the Ordinance claim any problems with the CAO will be ironed out as we go along.
So here we are today.
On the campaign trail, Lovel Pratt, a prime mover behind the Critical Areas Ordinance, is famously putting forward that her CAO Ordinance is a great compromise (NOT) and is fine, just misunderstood by the general public.
With any luck, the voters in the upcoming primary election will say “no thank you” to candidate Lovel Pratt, and choose one of the two San Juan Island Council candidates, Marc Forlenza or Bob Jarman. They are the non-partisan candidates -and were not part the prior Council that passed the CAO mess. New folks on the Council should be able to start correcting the Critical Areas Ordinance missteps.
It is unfortunate that it will take a new Council, the Growth Hearings Board and a gaggle of expensive attorneys to correct the CAO and put our Comprehensive Plan back on a sound footing.
“The Operation Was A Success But The Patient Died.”
For years, County citizens encouraged the County Council to take a more realistic approach to updating the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) of the Comprehensive Plan. The hope for a common sense approach came to an end late Monday afternoon when the Council passed their CAO ordinance; five votes in favor and one against.
It is fitting that the Council’s vote took place in a largely empty Council chamber. The citizens had finally gave up. Confused to the end, the Council was left voting on a marked-up strike-out version of the CAO and discussing if they could vote without a final “clean” document. They decided they could and did.
By the close of the hearing on Monday, the Council had made some cosmetic changes to the staff draft.
They decided that a homeowner’s already developed property within a CAO buffer would not be called a non-conforming use. In the fine print however, any changes within the existing developed area would have to comply with the new CAO rules; as though the proposed request for a permit use was within a non-conforming designation.
Compliance with the new “not non-conforming use designation that really is a non-conforming use for permitting purposes” will mean showing “no net loss” of functions and values of critical areas or wildlife habitat. Good luck with that one. Plan on spending lots of money on “experts” and their reports to prove a negative.
In discussing how to pay for implementing all the new rules, the Council reverted to the usual answer: the costs will be covered in a new updated fee schedule the County charges applicants. The County has been routinely raising fees for their “services.” Expect additional raises and new fees to come in the new year.
The Council never did a dry run on what the complete permit approval process would entail for a property owner. The permitting staff is not sure what it all means either. They were not consulted. The staff will have to, “make it up as they go along” and let the lawyers and courts decide. Good luck for the applicant on that one as well.
It was particularly telling that the Council only spent a bit over an hour on a cursory analysis of if or how the CAO would affect our current Comprehensive Plan; the plan that has worked very well for over a decade.
Based on the analysis Shireene Hale gave to the Council during this final meeting they decided the CAO would have no discernible affect on the existing Comprehensive Plan. Her report was not seen, let alone reviewed of commented on, by the Planning Commission or the general public, but the Council accepted it, and went along anyway.
There also was no analysis of how the CAO affects the 13 State GMA goals as required to be addressed under the Growth Management Act .
The Council’s notion that the CAO will not effect, or be in opposition to the goals of the SJC Comprehensive Plan’s Vision Statement, the Goals and Policies of the County’s existing GMA-approved Comprehensive Plan, or on the 13 goals (beyond a CAO) of any Comprehensive Plan approved under the State Growth Management Act, is beyond belief.
If this column sounds grumpy, it is because the County was not required to review the a CAO in this manner in the first place.
The simple fact is that the existing rules have been and continue to work as intended. The environment of the islands is healthy and would remain so without the changes. Minor changes, such as those made by the Town of Friday Harbor, would have satisfied the State update requirements.
So here we are, hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted, no real science as to what, if any, environmental problems exist in the islands, and an ordinance that will make home ownership ever more expensive for middle class working families while proving a full employment act for attorneys.
Good work Council.