Candidates forum covers everything from agriculture to CAO

By Anna Haefele Special to the Weekly

Much like Lopez Island itself, the election forum for county council drew a small but engaged group of citizens. Audience members on Lopez Island came prepared to pepper candidates with questions regarding everything from agriculture to the critical area ordinance during the Jan. 17 meeting at Grace Episcopal Church hosted by the League of Women Voters.

Orcas Councilman Rick Hughes, Lisa Byers and Greg Ayers are competing for two spots in April’s general election. Councilman Marc Forlenza, Bob Jarman, and former Councilwoman Lovel Pratt are the three San Juan Island candidates jockeying for position in the Feb. 12 primary.

Hughes, Byers and Ayers agreed that the recently approved Critical Areas Ordinance needs some minor revisions, which will likely take place before the Growth Management Hearings Board. The candidates also agree that some education needs to take place within the community to dispel misinformation.

Regarding the fish and wildlife section of the CAO, Byers, who is the director of OPAL Community Land Trust, stated “It's dense. It's definitely not bedtime reading,” adding “I think education will go a long way to helping us understand this legislation.” She found the land use section more straightforward, noting that “it was the first piece of legislation that I'd encountered where I actually learned something when I applied it.”

Pratt, pleased that the legislation passed, seemed reluctant to jump into revisions, noting that “it's something that will be amended over time.”

Many audience members were also concerned with the future of agriculture in the San Juans. Jarman, Hughes, and Forlenza approached the issue from the economic angle, saying that agriculture could be a significant part of economic stability and development in the San Juans in the coming years.

“Long-term agricultural business here could really transform our community,” said Hughes.

Forlenza expressed concerns about possible new limitations on farming, saying “The CAO could threaten the agriculture industry if it limits people's ability to make a living from farming.”

In response to these concerns, Pratt pointed out that the critical areas currently being farmed are unaffected, and that regulations for farming in new areas are flexible, provided farmers use best farming practices.

Members of the crowd were also quick to question the necessity and fairness of the high fee associated with the CAO appeals process. Pratt explained that the current charter requires the hearing examiner to hear appeals and it was the council’s policy that the cost of appeals be covered entirely by fees. On the $2,300 fee, Pratt stated, “The fee is set to cover what the cost is.” She added that in the future, the charter could change the amendment for the necessity of the hearing examiner and the council could change the policy to the fee structure by a vote of the people. Byers also addressed this, commenting “If we lower fees in one area, we'll be taking away funding in others.”

Forlenza worried that the high cost might prohibit citizens' access to due process, as the cost of an appeal is higher than many people's monthly income.

Candidates volleyed possible solutions, all focusing on ways to make the process more efficient. Jarman and Forlenza both supported the idea of a board of peers that would hear initial concerns. “The county is supposed to have a board to hear people's complaints,” said Jarman.

Ayers cited informational packets and individual planning counseling as a method of clarifying the process so that fewer questions turn into disputes, stating, “Do things smarter, and things go down in on one may be less expensive, in my experience.”

Hughes was particularly concerned with simplification and affordability in all aspects of the local government, saying “I want to see all our fees looked at.”

The next steps

After the Feb. 12 primary election, all voters in the county will vote for three council members – one from San Juan, Orcas and Lopez – in the general election in April. Because only two candidates are competing for the District 3 council seat, which comprises of Lopez, Shaw and surrounding outer islands, both Jamie Stephens and Brian McClerren move on to the general election. Each member of the three-person council will be paid an annual salary of $75,000 plus benefits.

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