Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee:

AIA Comes to Guemes Island, Day 1

“But there’s always been a feeling that the island wanted to have some say about our own development.”

“You have a wonderful island here. You have entrepreneurship, creativity and problem solving."

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See also: AIA Chooses Selects Guemes Island to Promote Long-term Sustainability


Residents of tiny Guemes Island, located off the tip of a peninsula on Puget Sound, are worried.

For decades, they trusted that their quiet, crime-free rural lifestyle was unassailable. Far enough from Seattle to avoid being a bedroom community, they felt safely isolated from big-city pressures. Although it takes only seven minutes to reach the island from Anacortes, WA, by ferry, the service’s limited hours of operation provided a far more effective buffer from strangers and traffic than its short trip would suggest. And since the mid-60s, when islanders successfully beat back a proposal to build a huge aluminum smelter on their 8-square-mile oasis, large-scale and industrial economic development has been pretty much off the table as a topic of discussion.

But enter the era of retiring baby-boomers and their oversized second homes, and suddenly, things have started to change. Small cabins on tiny parcels along the beaches have been scraped and replaced with lot-sized mansions. The county has decided to increase the ferry service to Anacortes to 10 p.m. (from 6 p.m.) on weekday nights, threatening to bring more strangers on the island past dark. More people and more houses are threatening to overtax the island’s water supply; its aquifer isn’t recharging fast enough to keep saltwater from seeping into some coastline wells and water systems.
“It wasn’t any one certain thing” that sparked the island to action, says Joost Businger, chairman of the Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee (GIPAC). “But there’s always been a feeling that the island wanted to have some say about our own development.”

Anxious to take control of its future, in 1991, the island elected the GIPAC to make recommendations for the island’s land-use plan. But, tough as things look for island residents, they aren’t bad enough to make it one of the highest priority planning areas for Skagit County Commissioners. More than ten years later, the island is still waiting for action on its sub-area plan. And recently, the county informed the island that it won’t have the funds to support the island’s “sub-area planning” process as part of the county’s new comprehensive land-use plan for the foreseeable future.

“We weren’t really surprised at that,” says Businger. “We just said, ‘Well, we’ll do the work ourselves.’”

Starting this week, a team of architects, landscape architects, water specialists, energy engineers and transportation experts from around the U.S. is helping the island do just that. The experts were pulled together as a Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT), a program of the AIA’s Center for Communities by Design, after Guemes Island was chosen as one of eight communities to receive technical assistance under the SDAT program in 2006. Through its charrette process, the SDAT team will help community residents and their planning committee create the blueprint that the island will then recommend as its sub-area plan to the county’s commissioners.

(For more information on the SDAT program, and for a list of the 2006 communities, see

“You are doing something that is rare in taking it upon yourselves to be involved in determining what you want your island to look like,” said Commission Don Munks at the introductory meeting of the team and the community Tuesday (6/20) in the island’s community hall. “Guemes Island has moved itself up in list and could become the model for sub-area planning in the county.”

The SDAT program is based on the principle that environmental, social, cultural and economic systems are interconnected and are all essential to ensuring sustainability, said Erica Gees, team leader for the Guemes Island project, AIA past president from Western Massachusetts and the president elect for AIA New England, at the opening meeting. In making sustainability the goal, disparate groups with widely varied opinions can discover common ground and find agreement where they thought they could only disagree. “By everyone looking through the same pair of glasses and focusing on sustainability, we have found that we can bring people together and build a solid consensus,” she told the gathering of some 100 community residents. “People can see that there are benefits for everyone in creating sustainable communities.”

As a community that already understands sustainability issues, Guemes Island was a natural choice for the SDAT process, said Ann Livingston, Director, Center for Communities by Design. “In order to be approved for an SDAT a community has to have a basic understanding of sustainability and its economic, social, cultural and environmental components as well as the long-term time frame; the Guemes Island residents clearly understand the concept of sustainability and have been working passionately to become more sustainable.”

Guemes Island illustrated that in grand fashion Tuesday morning – in grand fashion for a rural island with only 800 residents. In a three-hour tour of the island put together for the assembled AIA experts, dozens of community residents showed off their energy efficient homes (some totally “off the grid”), rain-harvesting projects, sustainable ranches, successful small artists and other businesses, and open space and wetland preserves. Set among the natural resources of a beautiful coastline, abundant wildlife, and tall trees, and blessed with a bright sunny day, the tour did its job.

“You have a wonderful island here,” said team leader Gees. “You have entrepreneurship, creativity and problem solving.”

Over the three days of the charrette process, the SDAT team and the community will work to hone its recommendations on six areas of concern identified by the island’s planning committee:

Water resources and the limited, sole-source aquifer

Transportation issues and alternatives

Preserving the sense of community and rural character

Reducing energy consumption and dependency on non-renewable energy sources

Maintaining the predominant scale of homes on the island, and

Maintaining the quality and quantity of wildlife habitat in harmony with residential development.

The group started its work Tuesday afternoon, splitting into five roundtables of community members and experts who agreed to discuss these key issues and identify the community’s goals and priorities. A public meeting on Tuesday night allowed all residents to come and express their opinions about their island’s future and the SDAT process. At the meeting, the experts promised to develop recommendations to help the community form their draft sub-area plan. But at the same time, the experts warned residents that they needed to do some work as well, defining exactly why they are concerned about growth and their future. “Why are you concerned about big houses” being built on the island? asked Walt Cudnohufsky, a landscape architect from Massachusetts. “You can’t stay on an emotional level.”

- Marj Charlier, AIA Team Member


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