Public has its say in comprehensive planning - Salish Current
July 9, 2024
Public has its say in comprehensive planning
Adam M. Sowards

Robby Eckroth (right), one of two senior planners managing Skagit County’s comprehensive plan revision, hears from members of the public at an open house in Concrete. Some residents wanted to hear a presentation, but Skagit County planners and consultants wanted to hear the public’s ideas and answer questions about the process. (Adam M. Sowards/ Salish Current © 2024)

July 9, 2024
Public has its say in comprehensive planning
Adam M. Sowards

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Skagit County  takes the community’s pulse at three public open houses

Skagit County’s current comprehensive plan runs more than 500 pages. 

Washington’s code that guides the planning process stretches almost 150 pages. That does not include the most recent changes from the 2024 legislative session that require new climate and housing components.

Terry Ketcham, who lives outside Concrete, presumes his opinion matters to the county. He appreciates that county officials listen.

Cory Sevin of Anacortes said it is an exciting moment to see the revision process begin. The comprehensive plan, she said, was one lever among many to make important changes. 

Ketcham and Sevin each attended one of three open houses county planning staff, along with consultants, recently hosted in Anacortes, Sedro-Woolley and Concrete in late June.

Planning for counties’ and cities’ population growth and economic development is complicated. The comprehensive plans that guide local governments remain in place for a decade. 

Skagit County has begun the work of updating its comprehensive plan simply — with sticky notes.

Open houses

Across the county, the public arrived at the three open houses with a mix of motives and interests.

Curiosity and a hope to become informed drove many Skagit County residents to these events, which occurred on a beautiful sunny evening in Anacortes and two dreary wet evenings in Sedro-Woolley and Concrete. The Concrete open house also competed against the presidential debate.

Despite the good and bad weather and competing events that could have tempted people to be elsewhere, about 100 residents altogether showed up.

Because the open houses have been held at the beginning of the revision process, curiosity about the process drew people to community centers to learn how the county is developing the process.

Others came because they see it as part of citizenship.

Laura Gahan of Mount Vernon attends many community board meetings to stay informed and is a precinct captain. Coming to the open house is another way to “know what’s going on,” she said. Gahan believes this kind of civic participation is important and hopes the county hears her concerns.

Participation helps identify and address county residents’ highest concerns.

The only way problems can be solved is to figure out what they are, said Elyse Lord of Anacortes. This process is part of that, she said.

At the open houses, posters identified components of the plan — rural land use and character, housing, transportation and capital facilities, resiliency and climate. With each category, the public could answer broad questions; for example, “What climate impacts are you most concerned about?” and “What does rural character mean to you?”

On resiliency: Skagit County residents shared their ideas at three open houses using sticky notes. The notes, simple and complex, reflected diverse experiences and opinions across the county. These notes captured what the public shared at the Sedro-Woolley open house. (Adam M. Sowards/ Salish Current © 2024)

By the end of each evening, colorful sticky notes expressed residents’ hopes and fears, some written in Spanish. These notes could be a single word — flooding — or short, complex statements about changing phenologies in plant and animal life.

The compiled feedback will inform county planners who will use it to inform the comprehensive plan revision. As the length of the plan and the code suggests, this is a long, involved process. The county is just beginning to receive public input.

Climate change draws in many

Preparing for resiliency in the face of climate change is the issue that motivated Lord to attend two open houses.

Climate change compelled many to attend.

Ketcham is concerned about extreme heat and cold. He attended an open house in part to share how he experienced temperatures of -1 degrees for the first time when the previous low was 9 degrees. He wanted county officials to know.

“We need to get serious about climate change,” said Richard Bergner who grew up and still lives on Fidalgo Island. Bergner sits on the boards of both Evergreen Islands and Transition Fidalgo, two local environmental groups. It is time to act, he said, not just think about climate change.

Several organizations with environmental concerns including the Skagit Audubon Society, the Skagit Chapter of the Citizen Climate Lobby and the Skagit Land Trust, encouraged members to attend.

Nancy Shimeall of La Conner and Betty Carteret of Anacortes are part of the Citizen Climate Lobby and arrived well prepared. Carteret brought typed comments on shipping labels to stick to the posters, which allowed her to communicate more information.

“The county is behind in planning for resiliency,” Shimeall said. She wants to see the comprehensive plan incentive electrification more. The next 10 years — the time this comprehensive plan will be in effect — will “make or break our future” in terms of climate, she said.

Carteret pointed out that all the elements of the comprehensive plan are affected by climate change. Population and development pressures will be even greater, she said, because of climate refugees coming to this region fleeing worst disasters elsewhere. That is a growth pressure Carteret thinks the county is not planning for enough. The county needs to “get on top of that now,” she said.

Lord sees the climate crisis as dire. “It’s too late to stop climate change. We’re on the verge of collapse,” she said. But this is not “mainstream thinking, so how do we talk about it,” Lord pondered.

Many wondered how the new emphasis on climate and resiliency might change their way of life in Skagit County.

One of the new state guidelines calls for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by reducing miles driven. Crystal Hayes of Concrete wanted to know how that will affect residents in rural areas. Hayes said she does not drive often, but when she does, she covers a lot of miles. She hopes the county recognizes how different rural driving is from that done in urban and suburban settings.

Getting this range of perspectives is part of why the open houses were held across the county, although several people grumbled that Mount Vernon, the largest and most diverse community, did not host one.

A hopeful way forward with housing

If anything was on the mind of Skagitonians more than climate, it was housing.

Skagit’s “humongous lack of affordable housing,” as Erik Larsen characterized it, is what brought him to the open house. Larsen was born in Sedro-Woolley — a “true local,” he said — and has seen a lot of change. Future growth has to managed to solve housing problems.

Larsen works at Helping Hands Food Bank, which sees itself as a “voice for the unheard,” he said. Larsen is working with Sedro-Woolley and the county to ensure this revision process captures “voices from all over.” He is “extremely hopeful about the process.” 

Others are involved in similar efforts. Chuck Messinger of Mount Vernon is the program manager for the Volunteers of America’s coordinated entry program. He said his “passion is trying to get housing for folk.”

Messinger wants to move beyond conversation and get to action to meet the housing needs of each community. He believes most communities want the same thing, but past barriers and missing connections have prevented them from improving. Messinger is working with others working in social services to bridge these gaps. 

Stephanie Semro wants the county to address affordable housing so her daughter who has a good job can afford to buy a house and her nephew and his family might build equity in a home instead of renting an apartment.

“Prices in Skagit are so high most people in Skagit can’t afford to buy unless they want to live off Top Ramen,” said Semro, a city council member in Concrete.

Skagit County planners sought specific input from the public about where they have experienced effects of climate change. By crowdsourcing this local knowledge, the planning staff gathered a set of on-the-ground observations about how the county is already undergoing climate change. Color-coded dots noted areas where residents have experienced extreme heat, wildfire or wildfire smoke, flooding or other climate impacts. (Adam M. Sowards/ Salish Current © 2024)

Concerns about housing are broad. People worried about safety. Others shared frustrations about county code not being friendly enough to alternatives like tiny houses or composting toilets. Several people mentioned that Skagit County has the lowest vacancy rate in the state, which is driving up costs.

Despite those potential stumbling blocks, the comprehensive plan revision is one way to bring people together to move past conversations and into action. 

“I’m hopeful for the first time in a long time,” Messinger said.

Hope and cynicism

Many members of the public said they were hopeful that the county will incorporate the suggestions. But a concern they will be ignored nags at them.

The event was not satisfying, Lord said. No one could answer her questions, and she wondered if anyone would read her comments and make changes.

Shimeall hopes the open houses are not “an exercise in making the public feel better.”

Mia Roozen of Concrete expressed a similar sentiment. Roozen said it was “amazing” that the county is looking for input. She plans to keep on participating as long as “it feels like they continue to listen.” If it seems like the county starts ignoring the public and relies on professionals, she will likely stop.

Stephanie Morgareidge of Concrete came to the open house because she was curious about the county’s plans and wanted to learn. “I’m very thankful to the county for taking the time to do this,” she said, especially for getting outside Mount Vernon.

Next steps

Comprehensive plan revisions are snapshot of community issues, and the public input that informs them are, too.

Robby Eckroth, one of two senior planners for the county managing the comprehensive plan updates, said one goal of the open houses was to educate the community about the revision process. The second goal is to be sure the revision reflects “the Skagit County community’s vision and goals for the future.” The open houses and future ways for the public to share input helps to capture that vision.

Chris Comeau, a senior transportation planner with Transpogroup who is involved as consultants, pointed out that not every place is the same. The Growth Management Act, which governs this process, recognizes this diversity, Comeau said. The GMA provides a general framework but also allows “every place to be the special place that it is.”

The consultant team is compiling the community feedback, from sticky notes to emails, and creating a community engagement report, according to Eckroth. It will be available by July 23 and will be used in drafting updates and policies.

The periodic updates for San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties are all due at the end of 2025. Websites are available to follow the San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom county comprehensive plan updates.

— By Adam M. Sowards

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