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Whidbey environment group isn’t suing county for first time in 25 years
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Whidbey environment group isn’t suing county for first time in 25 years

Whidbey Environmental Action Network has dropped all active cases against Island County for the first time in 25-years.

Marianne Edain, Steve Erickson and others have had a significant impact on the county’s environmental policy. They have demanded adequate setbacks in sensitive areas and protected a toad species.

The couple championed the Growth Management Act and challenged Island County’s interpretation and occasional disregard of the sweeping set of state laws that limits urban sprawl by directing housing density into cities. Edain & Erickson became experts in planning law and were prone to slandering county attorneys at the Growth Management Hearings Board.

“Because of WEAN, there are a lot of trees standing, a lot of habitat saved, a lot of prairies protected … and a lot of critical areas free from development impacts,” Erickson said.

Not everyone is a fan. Some county officials, developers, farmers and farmers consider the couple unnecessarily litigious.

In fact, after an appeals court decision in WEAN’s favor in 2005, county commissioners proposed language in the county’s comprehensive plan that specifically blamed the group — and called Erickson by name — as being responsible for changes in the code that were unpopular with some. WEAN reported that residents were also sent a flyer containing the language.

Edain stated that many people became upset about WEAN because of the finger-pointing. She said that cars started to swerve at them on the roads, and that friends followed them home from meetings to ensure they were safe.

“That was a horrible time,” she said. “It was no fun at all.”

Edain explained that WEAN’s role has been to “play the bad guy” in challenging regulations or projects, which can be thankless work. The group has stopped plans to develop or log hundreds upon acres of Whidbey Island in places such as the Trillium Woods.

Edain explained that this has allowed other groups such as the Whidbey Camano Land Trust to become heroes by buying property or conservation easements of land owners who are not satisfied.

“We are written out of the story,” she said.

WEAN has brought at least 30 cases against the county to the Growth Management Hearings Board and superior courts, as well as the state courts of appellates. The group has also sided with the county on occasion, including a successful challenge to Oak Harbor’s attempt to expand its urban growth area based on a flawed buildable lands analysis.

It is the job of Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks’ office to defend county regulations against WEAN challenges. Banks said he treats the group like any other legal opponent, “which is to say they are adversaries, not enemies.”

“Speaking more generally,” he said,” I think all government officials should appreciate the role played by the ‘watchdogs,’ whether they are journalists or self-appointed ones like WEAN. If we ignore or reflexively push back at every watchdog, we will surely miss opportunities to improve how we serve the people.”

One of WEAN’s first cases against the county was also one of its biggest wins. The county’s zoning code allowed the construction of three and a half homes per acre on the shoreline, which WEAN argued was contrary to GMA. The group won, and the county was forced into setting the density at one home for every five acres, which is what it is in most unincorporated areas.

WEAN’s litigation against the county began in the late 1990s when the county belatedly adopted its comprehensive plan, as mandated by GMA. The group immediately filed challenges to the county on a variety issues related with the protection of crucial areas. Edain stated that they ended up splitting the challenges into smaller pieces and then arguing each one individually.

Jan. 12 marked the end of the last cases between WEAN and the county. The hearings board passed an order declaring the county compliant and dissolving the case. WEAN’s final challenges were in regard to western toad habitat, the waiving of biological site assessments, buffers in natural areas preserves and the way certain critical areas were designated.

Erickson said he’s pleased with the way the county ultimately resolved the issues, which actually provide even better protection that he had hoped.

That isn’t to say WEAN won’t challenge the county in the future.

“We’re on a hiatus,” Edain said with a chuckle.

This story first appeared in the Whidbey News-TimesThe Herald’s sister publication, The Herald

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