Whidbey Island: Unhappy about trails, residents stop plans


Rick Levin
Whidbey News-Times

A controversial plan to add a horse/pedestrian trail and above-ground detention ponds to the south end of West Beach Drive in Oak Harbor has been scrapped after the county’s Roads Division was overwhelmed by opposition from neighborhood residents wanting to maintain the status quo.

Largely at issue for residents of the West Beach area was the fact that many of the older homes in this community rest in proximity to the arterial, and any potential easement required for a trail would usurp an inordinate amount of existing private property.

Island County Public Works officials instead will limit planned improvements along West Beach to bring the arterial road up to modern standards required by the state Dept. of Transportation, which includes the creation of 12-foot car lanes in each direction and a 6 -foot paved shoulder.

The total cost of the project is estimated between $1.5 and $1.8 million, with $1 million in funding coming through state Rural Arterial Preservation. RAP funding, which is competitively solicited, is generated through gas tax revenues.

West Beach Drive in its current configuration was first established in 1931, though portions of the road were in place as far back as 1912, when it was a dirt path through a community composed primarily of large farming properties.

The county’s previous plans to create a segregated trail along West Beach, along with detention ponds for water run-off, encountered tremendous opposition from the West Beach community, which is composed largely of retirees who appear to resent opening up their neighborhood to bicycle and equestrian traffic.

Also of concern for residents was the issue of mosquitoes breeding in the standing water of detention ponds. With growing panic over mosquito-borne West Nile Virus, which can infect horses and humans, residents argued that any excess surface water would pose an undue hazard.

Doris Campbell, a West Beach resident who has been a vocal opponent of the trail/catchbasin project, expressed cautious optimism over the revised plans. She said she and other residents are still awaiting the final drawings, adding that she’s not convinced the county isn’t going to try to acquire an excessive amount of private property.
“We want to see that in writing, and we want to see just how much property they’re going to acquire for their so-called right of way,” Campbell said Thursday.

Campbell said the vast majority of West Beach residents she’s spoken with are against the idea of creating trails through their neighborhood. Beyond the issue of usurping private property, she expressed concern over issues of trail maintenance, litter from out-of-town pedestrians and cost to the county.

“Are we going to make the island one big trail?” Campbell said. “Since when is having trails such a sacred right. And the county doesn’t have any money anyway,” she added.

Campbell said the county hasn’t adequately involved West Beach residents in the decision making process from the beginning, and didn’t take into account that most people opposed plans for a trail and above-ground catch basins. “They tried to tell me that people wanted this,” Campbell said. “Nobody asked me. I went knocking on everybody’s door along West Beach Road, and to a person, nobody wanted it.”

Campbell said she’s collected more than 100 signatures from residents opposing the original plan, adding that only such an outcry prevented the project from going forward.

“If we hadn’t yelled and continued to yell, they would have just barreled through with it,” she said.

Campbell said, even with the current plans for simply paving a 6 foot shoulder, she still feels like the county has left things “wide open,” adding that she will remain vigilant to the end.

“They still need to be watched,” she said.

Public Works Director Bill Oakes said he is pleased with the current plans to proceed with West Beach improvements.

“We reached a decision I think both we as engineers can live with, and the local neighborhood can live with,” Oakes said.
Oakes pointed out that the county will maximize use of an infiltration system for water run-off, putting in underground detention ponds when necessary. Detention pipes, Oakes said, will be perforated on the bottom “so in a low flow type storm the water is actually put back into the ground.” He added that such a solution puts as much treated water back into the ground as possible, recharging the area’s limited aquifer with drinking water.
Island County Public Works officials held an open meeting Tuesday at the Sierra County Club to discuss the proposed change in plans to improvements to West Beach Drive, attended by the board of commissioners and various county engineers and health officials. Design options for the road were discussed, with the current plan for 12-foot roads with 6-foot shoulders receiving enthusiastic applause from the 75 or so residents in attendance.
The other options presented to the crowd included the creation of a 6 ft. trail separated by a grass swale, and another plan that simply expanded the shoulder by four feet to incorporate a connected pedestrian/horse trail. A 6-foot. shoulder is the minimum allowed by state DOT regulations.

Many in the audience had yellow ribbons pinned to their shirts, a symbol indicating support of limiting West Beach improvements to creation of a paved shoulder.

County engineer Randy Brackett pointed out that the plan being supported by a majority of community members had a downside in terms of non-vehicular transportation.

“This has, from the county’s standpoint, no pedestrian facility,” Brackett said of the 6-foot shoulder plan. “There isn’t the safety that a pathway might provide.”

Environmental health expert Keith Higman also discussed the recent West Nile Virus scare, telling the audience that though no cases of the virus have yet been documented in the county, it could only be a matter of time.
Higman warned residents to avoid having any standing water on their property, especially in contained areas such as tires and bird baths where vector mosquitoes (which can carry the virus) are known to breed.

Board chairman Mike Shelton said he was happy with the results of the meeting, in that no properties along West Beach would be condemned to build a trail but the proposed shoulder would still provide adequate safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“The issue on West Beach is that many of the homes out there are built relatively close to the road,” Shelton said Thursday. “The addition of a trail probably imposes such an impact on people’s property that it doesn’t seem to be a workable solution.”

Shelton added that “hopefully one of the things we have done is provide a paved shoulder that will create some safety margin in terms of people who walk.”

Shelton also said he was pleased with how the issue of West Nile Virus was addressed, adding that the proposed creation of underground detention ponds reduces risk of the virus. “I think that’s a significant issue,” he said. “In this time when we have this virus on the horizon, we need to be cognizant of the fact that we don’t want to create areas where mosquitoes can multiply.”

Oakes said improvements to West Beach will begin “late summer at the earliest” next year. First the county has to buy all the necessary properties in order to widen the shoulders, then utilities need to be relocated, which will take approximately three months. Actually construction along the road is scheduled out at 100 working days, or about five months.


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