by Christie Stewart Stein
The appointed Skagit County Planning Commission (PC) wields considerable power in land use planning decisions that affect everyone in the county. Who are the Planning Commissioners? How are they appointed? Do they represent the people of Skagit?
It should be stated at the outset that Planning Commissioners serve as volunteers. Their duties require long hours of preparation for deliberations, and usually two (long) evening meetings a month. Planning Commissioners should be recognized for the significant commitment they make in time and attention to carry out their duties. For that reason, this article does not attempt to critique the performance of individual Planning Commissioners, but to look at the overall makeup of this citizens advisory board.
The PC exercises a great deal of power to impact the quality of life, rural development, future county character, and the fate of the cultural and natural resources for all Skagitonians because they vote to recommend support or denial for important proposed changes to the Skagit Comprehensive Plan, Development Regulations, and Skagit County Land Use and Zoning Map. Their recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners, who make the final decisions, are taken as representing the will of the county’s residents.
Recent and looming decisions
Recent issues facing the Planning Commission include the 30-years-overdue, state-mandated update of the Skagit County Shoreline Master Program; a citizens’ proposal to protect the failing Guemes Island aquifers by regulating additional well drilling; and a proposal to clarify the Critical Areas Ordinance provisions for protecting heron rookeries.
In the coming year, the PC will consider whether or not to recommend allowing the development of so-called Fully Contained Communities (FCCs). These are town-sized, urban density housing developments without municipal governments intended to be built in the rural countryside. Allowing FCCs has the potential to change Skagit from a rural county to a suburban commuter and retirement hub. While the PC’s role is strictly advisory, historically in Skagit, County Commissioners rarely override decisions made by the PC. This is because they take the PC’s recommendations as indicative of the will of the people.
“principal citizen advisory body”
According to the Skagit County website, “The Planning Commission is the county’s principal citizen advisory body on land use policy and regulations.” It would logically follow that the composition of the Planning Commission should reflect the broad diversity of perspectives of the people of Skagit. How does the Commission stack up?
As currently composed, the Commission consists of four women and five men. Of the current Commissioners, two are County employees (not in the Planning Department), two are developers, two are commodity-scale potato farmers, one is affiliated with the industrial timber industry, and at least two have a self-identified affiliation with the Skagit chapter of the Citizen’s Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR), and/or were formally endorsed for appointment by that organization.
Questions raised about representation?
This line up may raise a number of questions for the people of Skagit. For instance, do County employees have an inherent or apparent conflict of interest in serving on the Planning Commission? Might their loyalty to, or frustration with their employer impact their judgement in the decisions they must make? A quick survey of three federal agencies and three state agencies that seat citizens advisory boards or commissions reveals that none of them permit agency employees to serve in such a capacity. These agencies indicate the view that such a practice gives at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, and therefore is inappropriate.
Are developers a special interest group? Is this a case of the fox guarding the hen house, or do they bring a valuable perspective needed for sound decision making? Should builders hold two out of the nine seats on the PC? Do the developers on the PC recuse themselves from decisions affecting their livelihood?
It can reasonably be argued that the importance of agriculture to Skagit’s culture and economy may justify having two out of the nine positions on the PC held by farmers. Given the uniquely diversified farm economy here, is it appropriate that both farmer-Commissioners represent the same segment of the farming community?
Property Rights PAC wields influence
The influence of the private property rights Political Action Committee (PAC), CAPR may be concerning. According to the organization’s website, objectives of the Skagit chapter include “1. Maintain awareness of state, county and municipal activities that impact on a citizen’s right to use and dispose of his or her property. 2. Raise awareness of and strongly oppose threats to private property use, especially from ill-conceived, top down planning schemes imposed by government bureaucrats. 3. Educate the public about the concerted attack on private property by agencies at all levels of government, as well as Environmental NGO’s. “ (Emphasis added.) Can a Commissioner subscribing to these anti-planning views maintain objectivity when considering proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulations that affect all Skagitonians?
In addition to questions raised about the narrow breadth of representation on the PC, the process by which Planning Commissioners are appointed to their role may raise more. Again, according to the Skagit County website, “The Planning Commission consists of nine members appointed by the Chair of the Board of County Commissioners and approved by a majority of the Board. Three Planning Commission members are appointed to represent each County Commissioner district to ensure countywide geographical membership among the Planning Commission.”
While this description may be technically correct, in practice according to current and former County staff, the County Commissioner in each Commissioner District selects the candidate for Planning Commissioner who is then approved by at least two out of the three County Commissioners for appointment.
“We have no formal application process.”
In seeking information about the appointment of currently serving Planning Commissioners, we submitted a public records request for letters of application, and letters of support for the current Planning Commissioners. We found that there were such records for five of them. For two Commissioners, there was nothing more than an email mentioning their name, or in one case giving nothing but the person’s address and contact information. For two of the Commissioners, there are no records at all.
This lack of records for persons serving in this powerful capacity led to the following email exchange with Skagit Office of Public Records staff:
From: Stevee Kivi <email@example.com>
Sent: Thursday, February 25, 2021 10:24 AM
Subject: Records Request 20-0125
Attached are the responsive records for request 21-0125. This completes this request. If you have any questions please feel free to contact the Commissioner’s Office at (360) 416-1300.
Skagit County Public Disclosure/ Hearing Coordinator
Sent: Saturday, March 13, 2021 6:34 PM
To: Stevee Kivi <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: Records Request 20-0125
Are you saying there are no applications of any kind on file for Planning Commissioners Woodmansee, Hughes, Knutsen, and Raschko that were used in their selection as Planning Commissioners? Just wanting to be clear. Thanks,
From: Stevee Kivi <email@example.com>
Subject: RE: Records Request 20-0125
Date: March 15, 2021 at 9:28:18 AM PDT
Hello, I forwarded your question to the Commissioner’s Office, below is their response. “Commissioner Dahlstedt would meet in person or would telephone people that he thought might be interested in serving on the Planning Commission in his district. We have no formal application process.”
The lack of any records for some currently serving Planning Commissioners, and the assertion by County Commissioners’ staff that “We have no formal application process.” is disconcerting given the gravity of the decisions that come before this appointed body.
Recent appointment continues lack of diverse perspectives
The most recent Commissioner to join the Planning Commission was appointed by County Commissioner Ron Wesen to fill the unexpired term resulting from the resignation of former Planning Commissioner Mark Lundsten.
Commissioner Wesen passed over a highly qualified and experienced applicant, instead selecting yet another person affiliated with the private property rights PAC, Skagit CAPR. This appointment, far from broadening the diversity of perspectives on the PC, serves to further entrench one particular ideology. The appointment was approved on a Consent Agenda on April 12, 2021. (A consent Agenda is an omnibus vote, usually related to renewing County contracts where a group of measures are approved without separate consideration.) Assuming County Commissioner Wesen continues to support this appointee, either County Commissioner Browning or Janicki will have to vote again for the appointee in August 2021 for him to receive a regular four-year term.
County Commissioners have a duty
Skagit County is facing significant challenges. These challenges include preserving the rural character of Skagit, protecting natural resources, addressing the affordable housing crisis, and preparing for impacts of climate change such as sea level rise to name only a few. The lack of diverse perspectives on the Planning Commission to reflect the wide variety of concerns voiced by Skagit residents, and the often evident ideological bias on the Commission are a significant concern. The County Commissioners have a duty to insure that the PC is a truly representative body which can objectively consider the needs of all Skagitonians in planning for land use policy and regulations.
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.