By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
For the first time in 25 years, Whidbey Environmental Action Network has no active cases against Island County.
From demanding adequate development setbacks from sensitive areas to protecting a toad species, the impact WEAN founders Marianne Edain and Steve Erickson have had on environmental policy in the county is extensive.
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. In the process, Edain and Erickson taught themselves the intricacies of planning law and had a habit of shellacking county attorneys before 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 and farmers have considered the couple to be unnecessarily litigious and an obstacle to progress.
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. A flyer with the language was also mailed out to residents, according to WEAN.
As a result of this finger pointing, Edain said, many residents at the time grew unreasonably upset with WEAN. It got so bad that cars swerved at them on roads and friends followed them home after meetings to make sure they got there safe, she said.
“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 thwarted plans to develop or log hundreds of acres on Whidbey Island in places like the Trillium Woods.
As a result, other groups like the Whidbey Camano Land Trust are able to play the hero by swooping in and purchasing property or conservation easements from frustrated land owners, Edain said.
“We are written out of the story,” she said.
WEAN has pursued at least 30 cases against the county before the Growth Management Hearings Board, superior courts and the state courts of appeals. 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 to set the density at one home per five acres, as it is in most other 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 on a variety of issues related to the protection of critical areas. They ended up breaking the challenges into smaller pieces and arguing each in turn, Edain said.
The last of the cases between the county and WEAN officially came to an end Jan. 12 when the hearings board adopted an order finding the county compliant and dismissing 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 originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.