Meeting the council candidates running in the Aug. 6 primary

Council candidates attended a forum on June 29 downstairs of the American Legion Post 163 in anticipation of the Aug. 6 primary election. Two candidates for district one and two will advance to the general election in November. All county residents vote on the candidates regardless of their district.

The event was sponsored by a group of citizens who have gathered together, according to member Minnie Kynch, to problem-solve and take action on multiple issues the county faces. Each candidate was first given a few minutes to introduce themselves.

“I believe in collaborative government,” Kari McVeigh, county council candidate for District 1, said. “We have to collaborate with the town, and right now that is a broken relationship.”

McVeigh stressed the need to foster more civil dialogue and to increase affordable housing, citing her role as the Shaw School District Superintendent in building teacher housing for the Shaw school.

“I am running to sustain our resources, infrastructure and transportation,” McVeigh said. “We need effective advocacy with state and federal on ferries. I am proud to say I have the endorsement of our 40th District state legislatures, Alex Ramel, Debora Lekinoff and Liz Lovelett.”

Adrian Kilpatrick, also county council candidate for District 1, spoke next. Kilpatrick, currently 39 years old, was raised on San Juan and has been on the county’s Climate and Sustainability Advisory Committee and the town’s Art Commission.

“Our generation here on San Juan Island does not have a lot of representation,” Kilpatrick said. “We are struggling because of that, mainly with housing. Rent is super high, the housing stock is super low and development costs are through the roof.”

Kilpatrick noted that he would like to see a permanent affordable housing department that would help provide resources to an understaffed Department of Community Development and would look at where potential cluster housing or other affordable housing units could be located throughout the county.

Stephanie O’Day, the third council candidate for District 1 spoke after Kilpatrick.

“Thank you, Adrian, for talking about the younger generation, because the younger generation is hurting bad,” O’Day began. “We need to do something to protect the island way of life, which is going away. Things are out of balance, and we have to get back in balance.”

She explained to the crowd that she has been a land use attorney on the island for 33 years, and has seen on a nearly daily basis the beyond quagmire the DCD has been in.

“It affects housing, it affects child care, it affects staffing,” O’Day said.

One of her solutions would be to ease permitting restrictions, and another would be to work to tweak state land bank directives to allow for alternative uses like affordable housing development.

County council candidate for District 2, Jonathan Welch addressed the crowd next.

“The state of the county is poor and messy,” he said. “And for me, that needs to change.”

More public involvement is crucial to changing the situation, and Welch noted that he is excited to see more of it.

“The way of life that we have you don’t get anywhere else in the world. We are very lucky, but I think it’s time to fight. Fight for our community. It’s time to defend and protect it and it’s time to participate,” he said.

Justin Paulsen, District 2 county Council Candidate, addressed the crowd using his coaching voice rather than a microphone.

“We have a new county manager coming on, and we are going to be filling some critical positions,” he said, adding that combined with two new council members, it provides a unique opportunity for change. “Everything everyone has said here is important. Housing is important. Jobs are important. Ferries, if we want to have a two-hour forum about that later.”

Paulsen is the acting Chair of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee.

“We have been trying to figure out what we can do to make incremental changes in a system that is not readily changeable,” he told the crowd.

Rick Hughes, also a candidate for District 2, introduced himself to the crowd.

“I served as [district 2 council member] from 2013-2020. I have gone through just about every crazy thing that can be thrown at us,” he began, noting he was Chair at the beginning of the pandemic. “I have endorsements from the Secretary of State, DNR, differing senators on both sides of the aisle, and I have friends in every county across the state.”

Hughes said the county was in a good spot while he was a council member. He added that given the unique challenges of living on an island and governing in an island county, the community and government need to come up with creative solutions.

“There are a lot of issues, but I think the foundation of the county is in a good place. We have good staff, we just have to make it better. Civil discourse is one key, and so is solid leadership,” Hughes said.

The candidates then took questions from the audience. Questions were written on cards for the moderator, who combined them into topics to keep the conversation moving. They had two minutes to respond. The first question was regarding Accessory Dwelling Units.

O’Day stated that she believed that ADUs would help the housing crisis but that restrictions on them should be kept. She also specified that she is not for additional vacation rentals.

Paulsen told the crowd he felt ADUs could help working families and that the county could consider the best locations to avoid increasing density.

Hughes felt they could be located anywhere, but ensure that they are not for short-term rentals and that there be a mechanism to ensure they would be permanently affordable.

Welch cited Whatcom County as an example of using ADUs as an affordable housing solution. Whatcom, he said, has been actively helping property owners obtain ADU permits.

McVeigh agreed that ADU restrictions make sense, saying, “We need to be careful, that can’t just be anywhere. We need to look at the resources, specifically water, that are available. At some point, we are going to have to have the discussion about capacity. How many people and how many homes can we support?”

Kilpatrick noted that San Juan County has a high percentage of vacant homes.

“About 40% of the homes on San Juan Island are partially lived in year-round. That is a big number,” he stated, adding that the county needs to look at housing inventory and get a better understanding of water resources.

The next question asked if the candidates supported the Land Bank renewal. Welch, Paulsen, McVeigh and Hughes all said yes. Welch added that he would like to see the REET tax evolve. Paulsen said that the Land Bank is vital for conservation, particularly for protecting watersheds. Hughes pointed out the importance of citizens of all economic levels accessing the county’s wild areas. McVeigh stated she is for the Land Bank’s renewal for all the reasons previously mentioned and that it secures the island’s resources and beauty for the future.

O’Day discussed some of the history of the Land Bank and its early instigators, including Sam Buck, Sr.

“I think some people are tired of so many properties going into the Land Bank which raises our taxes, and a lot of those preserves are not even open to the public,” she said, to which some in the crowd clapped. O’Day continued, saying that there are 39 preserves and nine of them are closed to the public.

“I have my doubts [we would ever vote] to kill the Land Bank. But it should be a wake-up call to the county council that we need to reimagine the Land Bank,” she said.

The candidates were asked whether they supported the San Juan Island Library levy lid lift. All six agreed that it was not a council-related question.

When asked about trails, particularly the controversial Zylstray Lake trail, the candidates agreed the proposal was not handled well.

“It was a big mess,” McVeigh began, adding that she didn’t know of many people who were against trails, but that this was a situation where the county got ahead of itself by chasing a grant without a plan. A plan with engagement from the community and property owners needed to come first.

Kilpatrick agreed the issue was not a matter of trails but of the process.

“What I heard from property owners was furor,” O’Day said, wondering why more trails could not be put on Land Bank properties.

Hughes noted that a trail on Orcas was originally controversial and that it took 10 years for the community and property owners to work through all the concerns and devise a plan that people could support and stand by.

Paulsen said just because something is on the table doesn’t mean it will happen, adding, “We have a lot of big issues, and if a grant pops up we can’t go chasing the next shiny thing.”

Attendees questioned the size of the county budget, approximately $21 million, and aired concerns about adding more things like the Environmental Stewardship Department, which has eight employees.

Hughes noted that the county does have a fair budget but that some of that money carries over from year to year and that a portion of those funds are also restricted and come from grants and other outside sources.

Paulsen pointed out that the Environmental Stewardship Department is largely funded by grants and that the work they do was taken off the Public Works plate so they could be more efficient.

McVeigh reiterated Paulsen’s comments regarding the Environmental Stewardship Department but added the county budget was headed for a fiscal cliff and changes and hard decisions would have to be made.

“The budget has gone up, and so has everything else,” Kilpatrick said.

“We need to do more to protect islanders,” O’Day said, “Not hire more consultants.” The county, she noted, had recently hired a consultant to the tune of $185,000.