Missing the Point

An open letter to the Board of County Commissioners, San Juan County, by Joe Symons

The comp plan process to date has skirted the edge of the most important issue facing the future of San Juan County, namely, the consequences to all of us of the total number of people who can, and hence will, call San Juan County their home.

I believe the vision statement is clear on the issue of what could be described as the 'look and feel' of the islands, and that vision is wholly inconsistent with the current buildout population implied by the land use densities on the existing comp plan land use maps.

The county commissioners to date have declared that the existing density designations will be maintained essentially unchanged as the basis for the land use element of the new comprehensive plan.

Thus, in the absence of another review, decision, or idea regarding the buildout population, the commissioners are essentially permitting a future population potential which can not be reconciled with the fundamental tenets of the vision statement crafted by the citizens they appointed.

The purpose of this comment is to alert those citizens who care about their children's future to a fundamental problem which cannot be ignored without a healthy dose of doublespeak. In my view, the comprehensive plan must explicitly detail the buildout population it certifies, and must demonstrate that this population is indeed consistent with the vision statement. To do otherwise opens the county to not only the charges of hypocrisy and of abusing the efforts of countless citizens devoting literally years of their time to a good faith, serious effort to craft this plan, but to lawsuits.

To the observation that the comprehensive plan covers a twenty year time frame, within which the buildout population will not be reached, and therefore the issue of the buildout population is irrelevant, I respond with the observation that the plan shows a direction, an intention, a purpose, and if that direction is contrary to the vision statement, it must be altered. It is not enough to say that you didn't murder someone because, though you planned to, and put the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger, you missed. Intent is everything in a comprehensive plan; that's what "plan" means.

The land use plan alternatives being considered for the new comp plan show four fairly distinct land use allocations. The comp plan committees will deliberate on these alternatives and choose one. This selection process only chooses the activities that can be done on the property without further approval-the choice has nothing to do with the population density on the land. However, over 90% of the square footage in new construction building permits issued by the county for the last several years is for single family residential construction. With few exceptions, every land use category permits a single family home outright. So if most of the people moving here are moving to have their home in the country, and not to start businesses that are larger than home occupations, which are also permitted outright, then the land use map selection process is interesting, perhaps, but not really that significant. No one in their right mind moves here to start a farming operation, buying land for 10 to 15 thousand dollars an acre, and thinks they will pay for the land, the equipment, and their living expenses on the crops they grow, unless they're growing something, or ingesting something, illegal.

People are moving here for the reasons codified in the vision statement, and as the population reaches even half of buildout, their choice will have been shamefully betrayed.

The already accepted vision statement speaks clearly of a low density, rural, quiet, traditional way of life, more or less like what people see here and now as they live and move around on the islands. Most people who live here do not believe that a total population that is seven to eight times the current population would create an environment that is essentially indistiguishable from the one they enjoy now.

What needs to happen is that this issue be brought squarely to the front burner and left there until it has cooked long enough to be understood and resolved. I believe that there is a very strong desire by many comp plan committee members on each island to want to wrestle with this issue, however painful and confusing it may be, until a resolution has been crafted.

What has not happened, to date, is a clear recognition of the importance of this single factor as a fundamental component of the planning process. It has, to date, been ignored, skirted, and buried. I blame no one for this, as the issue is perhaps the toughest one in the whole collection of comp plan issues, and the natural tendency is to avoid the tough ones, hoping they'll either go away or come up later after the incumbents have retired. I think, however, that it will be inexcusable for the county to avoid leadership in responding to this issue, to passively slide under the table the responsibility for our future, throwing up one's hands, blaming it on the precedent set in 1979.

I am not specifically recommending down zoning. I am only recommending that the county commit itself to the process of reconciling the vision statement to the comp plan, and doing that process with integrity, honesty and an open mind.

I believe there is sufficient energy and flexibility among the people who crafted this vision to generate a way to reconcile the vision with our comp plan development efforts. This energy needs to be recruited, encouraged, honored and protected as it forges a plan that really meets the vision, even if the way that emerges may not be obvious, normal, usual, conventional or status quo. I believe that only the county commissioners can generate, and nurture, that energy through their recognition and insistence that this goal is not only worthwhile but mandatory.

The question then remains, will they and by extension, all who care about the San Juans, sieze the reins, take leadership positions, and actively demonstrate a commitment to our future?

Pick up a pen or phone and let your commissioner know that this issue is important to you, your family, your children and your sense of what's right for this beautiful, unique and fast changing archipelago we are lucky, now, to call home.

Return to Garden House.

Copyright 1995 Joe Symons