Power and money trump residents’ efforts to protect South Fidalgo?

Reporting by Christie Stewart Stein

Fidalgo Island, WA
Photo of Fidalgo Island where Anacortes is located. This is from the Mount Erie cliffs looking South over Campbell Lake. Photo by Eric Hall

A year ago this month, the hopes and efforts of hundreds of South Fidalgo Island residents to protect their rural community from the possibility of industrial development were brushed aside by a Skagit County Commissioners’ vote to deny a rezoning proposal three years in the making. Why, when residents had worked with County Planning Department staff at the direction of the Commissioners for three years, and after the Planning Department had repeatedly recommended that the Commissioners adopt the zoning changes, did the Commissioners fail to do so?

South Fidalgo Island is a richly-beautiful landscape of rocky coastline, pastoral properties, wetlands, secluded ponds, and lovely forestlands. Roger Robinson, one of the leaders of the citizen group who sought the rezone, has a lifelong connection to this land, and lives in the modest home his grandmother built overlooking Rosario Bay. “My family settled Rosario Beach in 1885.” says Robinson, and over many decades, he has persisted in his determination to protect the natural beauty and rural character of South Fidalgo from overdevelopment.

South Fidalgo is one of many areas in Skagit County zoned Rural Reserve. According to Skagit County Planning and Permitting code 14.16.320:

“The purpose of the Rural Reserve district is to allow low-density development and to preserve the open space character of those areas not designated as resource lands or as urban growth areas. They establish long-term open spaces and critical area protection…”

Current Skagit County zoning codes allow for 31 special uses of land in Rural Reserve areas some of which are clearly not consistent with preserving long term open spaces and critical area protection, or even protecting the rural character of these areas. These special uses include golf courses, race tracks, industrial ag processing facilities, and major utility developments. Says Patty Wasson, one of the advocates for the zoning change,

“We realized we have choices now regarding development that we may not have in the future, and those choices will affect the generations that come after us.”

If the purpose of Rural Reserve zoning is meant to protect open space, critical natural areas, and rural character, why are industrial processing facilities allowed? It wasn’t always that way.

In 2005, a change to the zoning codes was made by Skagit County Commissioners in office at that time to legalize an industrial pickle processing plant (hundreds of 10,000-gallon pickling vats) that was built without permits on rural reserve land. In the words of Dodge Valley resident Rick Shorten,

“The property was zoned rural reserve which did not then permit industrial ag operations. When the permit and planning department staff was urged to enforce the law, our neighbors were informed that a County Commissioner had told them not to.

Our neighbors then appealed this matter to a hearing examiner. Before the examiner handed down his decision, the County Commissioners changed the rural reserve designation in the zoning code to allow industrial ag operations throughout the county.

If you live in rural reserve, you too may find yourself in this situation. We learned that if you have a friend in the Commissioners’ office, you can not only ignore the law, but get it changed so you are no longer in violation.”

Beginning in 2015, residents of South Fidalgo began working with Skagit County on a proposal to change the zoning for about 4000 acres from Rural Reserve to a new designation called South Fidalgo Rural Residential. The new zone would restrict some uses not compatible with preserving long term open spaces and critical area protection, and eliminate CaRDs (Conservation and Reserve Developments).

CaRDs allow landowners to sell their development rights to conserve the natural resources or open space of their land. Developers can then purchase development credits either from the County or from a private landowner to increase development in specified areas. Although CaRDs may accomplish the County’s goal of no net increase in development, property owners next door to these cluster residential developments can experience significant negative impact on their rural lives.

The process of making changes to the County’s Comprehensive Plan is complicated, and citizen groups are often starting from scratch to understand the process and meet the required deadlines. The residents were sent back to the drawing board a couple times to adjust and refine the proposal. They worked closely with Planning Department staff at the direction of the Commissioners. By 2018, 350 Fidalgo Island residents had signed a petition asking for the rezone which would eliminate 17 incompatible uses for the new zone, and eliminate CaRDs.

The Planning Department staff recommended that the Commissioners approve the proposal, by this time known as P-12 for its docket number. Roger Robinson, who was involved through the long process, said

“The County Commissioners had all agreed, off the record, that they were going to vote in favor of P-12.”

Enter a new player. According to County records, Bill Doddridge bought a 37-acre property on South Fidalgo on December 3, 2012. His company, Goldenwest Diamond Corporation is based in California. Doddridge is a co-founder of TRUMPAC (now known as Great America PAC), which aggregated large donations from wealthy donors to help propel Donald Trump into the US Presidency in 2016. Not long after, Doddridge and wife Pam began wielding their power and influence in Skagit. (See Searchlight Review for details of Doddridge’s funding to local election races and ballot measures )

Doddridge funded and helped promote opposition to the P-12 rezone proposal, packing several County Commissioner meetings and Planning Commission meetings with angry, MAGA hat-wearing crowds of 30-35 opponents of the rezone. According to witnesses, and County records of public comment, these crowds included property rights activists from all over Skagit. Doddridge’s followers used tactics that are now familiar, opposing the measure by repeating inaccurate, and erroneous information in public meetings, and shouting down supporters of the rezone.

There is yet another player in all this. Besides the County Planning Department made up of County staff, the Commissioner-appointed Skagit County Planning Commission has considerable power to impact land use decisions. According to the Skagit County website:

“The Planning Commission is the county’s principal citizen advisory body on land use policy and regulations.”

The Planning Commission is made up of nine citizens, three from each County Commissioner district, who are appointed by Skagit County Commissioners.

South Fidalgo resident Patty Wasson came to a Planning Commission meeting in 2018 to give public comment in favor of the P-12 zoning change.

“The P-12 hearing was the first time I have spoken at a County hearing. When I was rudely booed by the majority property rights opinion in the room, I immediately felt demeaned.”

Neither the Commission chair, nor any other commission member moved to stop the crowd’s behavior, and Patty wasn’t able to finish her statement.

“I think all speakers need to be given mutual respect, and not feel overpowered by the crowd. The Commission needs to control the crowd and not allow this behavior to occur,”

she said. (On October 16, 2018, Ms. Wasson’s full statement was read into the record by Planning Commissioner Mark Lundsten who also took the Commission to task for failing to stop the crowd’s bullying.)

On October 16, 2018, the Planning Commission voted 6-1 against approving the P-12 proposal. On October 29, Skagit County Commissioners sided with the Planning Commission against the recommendation of County staff, and the will of hundreds of South Fidalgo residents.

Immediately following the Commissioners’ vote on October 29, 2018 to deny the South Fidalgo rezone proposal, Reporter Sarah Doyle snapped a photo of County Commissioner Ron Wesen enjoying a cheerful moment with Bill and Pam Doddridge. Her story appeared in the Anacortes American on October 31, 2018. You may use the arrows at the top to navigate to the second photo in the gallery when viewing the article online.

[Interestingly, Doddridge was the single highest donor to the No On Charter campaign, a ballot measure to change the structure of County government, that both Commissioner Wesen and Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt campaigned heavily against.]

In a December 26, 2018 letter to the County Commissioners from Planning Commissioner Mark Lundsten (the lone vote on the Commission in favor of P-12), the troubled process of deliberation was described:

“I am saying that our deliberations about P-12 were inadequate. A major
reason for this was that we remained silent about a misinformation campaign. We treated false statements as if they were true and thus enabled confusion instead of promoting understanding.

The 2018 P-12 proposal was the result of public input, made in good faith to the County. The proponents made two points about South Fidalgo Island: water supply needs to have a plan and commercial/industrial
development needs limitations. In 2017, specific objections to P-12 arose, map borders and agricultural processing, for example. Proponents, in conjunction with the Planning Department and at the direction of the Board, amended P-12 to address those problems. Those changes formed the 2018 proposal.

That new proposal attracted even more support than it had in 2017, when the majority of testimony at the Planning Commission already was in favor of P-12. In 2018, about 350 people signed a petition encouraging the Board to pass it. But in 2018, the opposition had changed. Instead of testimony discussing actual, resolvable issues with the proposal, and whether or not the new version of P-12 successfully addressed those issues, the opposition this year mostly expressed generalized fears manufactured from the repetition of false claims.”

With the County Commissioners’ decision to ignore the petition of hundreds of residents, and the advice of Planning Department staff after three years of diligent work, the South Fidalgo community is left once more to fight one development project after another in an endless cycle that puts their homes, rural lifestyle, and natural surroundings at continual risk.

Christie Stewart Stein has farmed just west of Mount Vernon for 25 years. Her volunteer engagement in the community has included working with homeless women, farmworkers and Spanish-speaking immigrants, and aspiring young farmers.

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