Democracy in action? | Guest column

Democracy in action? | Guest column

by Michael Riordan

Orcas Island

Despite tremendous opposition voiced at its meeting in the Eastsound Fire Hall on Tuesday, May 8, the County Council voted unanimously to endorse plans for a sidewalk along Haven Road, subject to two conditions: that there be little or no loss of on-street parking, and that the county engineer consider options besides concrete for the sidewalk surface (see article on Page 1).

About 20 Orcas islanders testified, most of them expressing strong reservations about or staunch opposition to the county plan for Madrona Point streetscapes, which includes a controversial concrete sidewalk along the eastern edge of its right-of-way on Haven Road. The overriding concern, expressed by members of the Odd Fellows (who presented petitions with over 400 signatures, including 231 from local businesses, staff and customers), was the likely loss of parking space these plans would entail. Users of their hall depend on plentiful on-street parking available nearby. Other speakers objected to an urban-style concrete sidewalk on what is a semi-rural road.

The previous Thursday, the Eastsound Planning Review Committee had recommended unanimously that the council allow a month delay in the decision-making process to encourage greater citizen input into the streetscape design for Haven Road. That way “softer” alternatives such as a gravel pathway could be considered. But council members ignored this recommendation and accepted the engineers’ plans with minor modifications. After the testimony ended, Lopez representative Jaimie Stephens tried to claim there was little public opposition to the plans, but he was shouted down by a resounding chorus of “No!” emanating from the back of the room. It’s hard to believe he was listening during the public testimony.

Indeed, such a planning exercise involving citizen input might have considered other possible options — for example, a gravel walkway down the western side of Haven Road. Such an approach would not require carving into the almost-vertical rock wall on the eastern side, potentially destabilizing the ground adjacent to the townhouse development currently under construction. But that possibility was foreclosed by the precipitate council decision.

Orcas islanders present got to witness the dark side of “representative” democracy, in which elected officials decided that they and their professional staffers know what is better for the Eastsound community than the people who elected them — and don’t really need to consider citizen input into the process of designing how a portion of that community will appear and function.

The underlying “we know better” council attitude also largely ignored the recent Eastsound visioning process, which seeks to regulate density growth in adjacent areas like Madrona Point. Instead, the decision helps enable maximum build-out there, which could eventually entail over 70 residences. And a sidewalk along Haven Road, plus a dozen added parking spaces near the end, would encourage much greater use of the nearby public dock by visiting boaters.

If council members can ignore overwhelming public opposition on a small county road, what will happen when they address much more important issues such as the Eastsound Vision Statement and the County Comprehensive Plan?