Growth management bill tops $1 million - Commissioners threaten lawsuit against Growth Hearings Board, say decisions are 'arbitrary and contrary' to will of the citizens

By Ted Grossman
Islands Sounder


Island County, WA - Two county commissioners were in an angry mood after learning that the county’s most recent growth management plan continues to be out of compliance with state mandates, and in need of still more work.

The county has spent over $1.3 million in local government funds since 1990, when it began work on a plan to meet state Growth Management Act (GMA) guidelines. It faces the prospect of spending another $140,000 in 2003, according to county Auditor Si Stephens, who confirmed the numbers after meeting with Planning Director Laura Arnold.

Orcas Commissioner John Evans was bristling when he told the Eastsound Planning Review Committee (EPRC) Oct. 17 that enough is enough, saying the county should tell the state that its work is over, because it represents the will of the citizenry.

The Orcas commissioner has threatened on several occasions to take to court the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, the group which found elements of the plan, including those dealing with Eastsound and Lopez Village, to be out of compliance with state guidelines. Evans may now have an ally in San Juan Commissioner Darcie Nielsen, who told the Orcas Island Association of Realtors Monday that “it’s time to bring in the big guns.” Namely skilled lawyers who have successfully gotten state reviews of local plans overturned elsewhere in Washington State.

Evans doesn’t have two allies, however, Commissioner Rhea Miller said she “expected” the Growth Board’s ruling, adding that it shouldn’t affect planning for Lopez Village.

But Nielsen was in a fighting mood Oct. 28 when she accused the Growth Board of rendering a decision that was arbitrary and contrary to the wishes of local citizens. “It’s not about planning any more,” she told the Orcas Island Association of Realtors Oct. 28. “The community process doesn’t matter any more.” As for the ruling itself, Nielsen, a professional planner, said, “It blows me away.”

Evans and Nielsen both feel that the goal of the GMA process has degenerated into getting something past the Growth Board, not serving local folks. Evans also expects the process to continue to be lengthy, expensive, and with no certainty as to the final outcome if the county stays on its current cost. “All this money is gone, and we’re just beginning,” Evans said, calling the process a “merry-go-round that never ends.”

The plan, which was rejected by the Growth Board Oct. 15, had earlier been considered by the EPRC, county planners, and the Planning Commission before it was adopted by the Board of County Commissioners. Each of the groups rendered a different opinion, as did private parties Fred Klein and Lynn Bahrych. Nielsen was deeply troubled that the appeals submitted by Klein and Bahrych apparently received as much credence with the Growth Board as those of the commissioners and county planning bodies. Klein appealed the county’s Eastsound Airport Overlay District. Bahrych’s appeal did not relate to Eastsound. It called for maintaining a moratorium on guest houses (auxiliary dwelling units).

The Growth Board not only concluded that Eastsound’s Urban Growth Area boundaries fail to comply with the Growth Management Act, it also ordered the county to complete an analysis of its future wastewater and drainage services, and reconsider what it calls “incompatible uses” in its Airport Overlay Zone.

San Juan County Planner Pat Mann feels that the concerns of the Growth Board can be addressed within the next six months, the deadline set by the state, without spending a great deal of local money.

But it will require the Eastsound Sewer District to bring its service plan into compliance with the recommended boundaries for Eastsound. That may be a lot easier said than done, however. Sewer Commissioner P.C. Wilde told The Sounder that the service plan did not need to be changed. “Our service area supersedes this planning thing,” he said. Nevertheless, the sewer district has agreed to meet with the county Planning Department on Nov. 14.

The Growth Board is also demanding that residential development be all but eliminated in the area in and around the airport. This was the recommendation of both Mann and the Planning Commission, as well as Klein, but the EPRC fought it, and the county commissioners largely sided with the Eastsound advisory body.

If Evans’ fellow commissioners decide not to fight the Growth Board, he will propose that Eastsound do away entirely with its Urban Growth Area, and redesignate itself a Limited Area of More Intensive Rural Development (LAMIRD). Yet there are no assurances that this direction will shorten the GMA process or save the county any money.

Evans believes it will save local taxpayers millions, because it will eliminate the need for a sophisticated wastewater and drainage system. But Nielsen said she didn’t know if this was true or not. It would be up to the Growth Board, she said, acknowledging that it could rule either way.

Evans doesn’t know if a LAMIRD designation would make it more difficult for Orcas Island to provide affordable housing than it would be if Eastsound remains an Urban Growth Area. Mann believes a LAMIRD would make things far more difficult. EPRC member Fred Munder has asked the Planning Department to settle the question. Mann said he would offer his view of the pros and cons of a LAMIRD and UGA within the next week or so. But he admitted it was only an opinion.


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