Island County commissioner races focus on growth issues

By BRIAN KELLY

Herald Writer

Even though the bitter growth battles on Whidbey Island appear to be coming to an amicable end, development remains the biggest issue for those running for two Island County commissioner seats.

Lynne Wilcox, the Democrat challenging incumbent William "Mac" McDowell for the District 2 spot, said acrimony over growth issues has created a virtual Mason-Dixon line on the island just about near Greenbank Farm.

Wilcox said county leaders have been very slow to implement growth management over the past decade.

"They dragged their feet until sanctions were threatened by the state," she said. "During that time there’s been a lot of unbridled growth."

And county government needs a firmer grip on the public purse, as well, Wilcox said. She criticized the commissioners for the large amount of money it spent to develop the county’s growth plans.

"We’ve paid outside consultants well over a million dollars to get a plan that could have been done with our own employees and beefing up the planning department.

"Our dollars are way, way too limited. They’re just precious and few, and we need to spend them very, very carefully."

McDowell disputes the acrimony angle: "It doesn’t jibe with the truth."

He pointed to this month’s decision by a state hearings board that settles growth disputes. The board upheld Island County’s plan to limit rural-zoned lands to five-acre parcels — and do away with 10- and 20-acre lots — because the move was supported by environmentalists and property-rights proponents.

"Both extremes accepted it and said we did a good job," McDowell said.

The county did spend more than a million dollars for help in preparing growth plans, McDowell said, with one consultant earning more than $700,000. Still, Island County was able to finish not only its comprehensive plan, but also new development regulations, a shoreline master plan update and new zoning as well.

Other counties are still working growth planing and finding it just as expensive, if not more, McDowell said.

"For her to make a political stand that we wasted money is absurd," he said.

And the county now has an emergency reserve fund, as well as the lowest tax rate out of all of Washington’s 39 counties, he added.

Wilcox is a familiar foe for McDowell; she challenged him in the Republican primary for the county commissioner’s race in 1996.

She jumped parties because of philosophical differences over abortion and the rise of influence in the party by the religious right.

"I’ve always been very independent; never voted a party platform in my life," Wilcox said. "And when the Republican party took away a woman’s right to choose, they lost me emotionally."

A 30-year Island County resident, Wilcox lived on Camano Island for eight years. She moved to Oak Harbor in 1979.

Sounding a theme familiar from McDowell’s primary challenge, Wilcox said county morale is down and employee productivity is suffering. The county employees union has endorsed her, she added.

"That speaks volumes. That, to me, is like a vote of no confidence."

But McDowell countered that the union for county employees changed the way it conducts votes two years ago. Now, just those who show up at a meeting get to vote. Wilcox’s endorsement came from a meeting of less then 10 union members, McDowell said.

Wilcox doesn’t have a record as an elected official, but voters should look at her record when it comes to running a campaign, McDowell said.

"Her only record, for good or bad, is her campaign record," he said. "Her campaign record is only rhetoric and distortions. And the politics of personal attack."

A former Navy pilot who came to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in 1972, he was first elected to the three-member board of commissioners in 1992.

Mike Shelton has been a commissioner for just as long. This time, the Republican is facing a challenge from William Rowlands, a political newcomer.

Rowlands, a Democrat, faced a spirited write-in campaign during the primary from Clinton cabinetmaker Tom Fisher, who said his opponent’s personal problems would prevent him from becoming a viable candidate.

But Rowlands beat Fisher’s write-in bid, 2,429 to 1,499. Rowlands could not be reached for comment.

Even though his opponent hasn’t even been endorsed by his own party, Shelton is campaigning "very seriously."

"I think anyone who doesn’t take their campaign seriously is asking to get beat."

Rowlands has also campaigned on the issue of high growth-planning consulting costs.

Shelton, too, said growth management has been costly for every county.

"But if I had to do it all over again, would I do it differently? Absolutely not."

People have moved to Whidbey from other fast-growing places in Puget Sound and want to see the rural character preserved, Shelton said. "They’re very concerned that Island County doesn’t become another Redmond or Kirkland or Woodinville or Bellevue."

"When you drive around the county, you still feel as though you’re in the country. And that’s important."

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