Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee:

AIA Comes to Guemes Island, Day 2

“I am always impressed with how many people really get involved”

“What’s very, very clear is that your main concern is controlling growth that’s compromising your rural future.”

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


GUEMES ISLAND – Wednesday (June 21) was the longest day of the year north of the equator. But for the residents and AIA volunteers and staff working on a plan for Guemes Island’s future, it was barely long enough.

Residents of this far-northwestern island of Washington State began showing up at 7:30 in the morning to get started working with the AIA’s Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT). Pads and pens in hand, they drifted into the Guemes Community Center in khakis, dress pants, long peasant skirts, Birkenstocks, cowboy boots and loafers, their dress visibly representing the diversity and various professions and stages of life of the residents of the island.

“I am always impressed with how many people really get involved” in the community, said Joost Businger, chairman of the Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee (GIPAC).
This motivated and eclectic group of islanders, brought together by the AIA’s Center for Communities by Design’s SDAT Program and (GIPAC), all shared one goal: the hope that their work will provide much of the philosophy, direction and tools that will eventually be adopted as the island’s land-use plan by Skagit County. (See for more details about the process and the SDAT program.)

“What’s very, very clear is that your main concern is controlling growth that’s compromising your rural future,” said Erica Gees, team leader for the Guemes Island SDAT, as she sent the volunteers home Tuesday night, following a public meeting that allowed all citizens to come and express their hopes and concerns for their 8-square-mile island. Harvesting that passion for the island’s rural nature set the agenda for Wednesday, as about 60 of the island’s 800 residents in five roundtables began sifting through their opinions and preferences, and sorting them into a concrete set of proposals for preserving their island way of life.

The roundtables and a sample of their discussions so far are:

Renewable Energy: In applying for the SDAT grant, GIPAC told the AIA that one of its highest priorities was reducing dependency on off-island power and fuel supplies. Even before gasoline hit $3 a gallon around the country, Guemes Islanders were feeling the pinch of high energy costs. There is no natural gas on the island, propane for furnaces has to be trucked across to the island by ferry and there is no public transportation. Further, many Guemes Island residents were already experimenting with alternative energy schemes, including photovoltaic electricity production, passive solar construction and wind generation. Conversations overheard in the local general store’s bar are as likely to be about alternative energy technologies as about the latest TV shows.

The energy roundtable decided to focus its work on three major areas: producing its own fuel and energy such as biodiesel, wind and solar; encouraging conservation; and educating key players in real estate and building professions and regulatory agencies. “We’re leaning toward volunteering ourselves as a permanent group to create a culture of energy efficiency on Guemes Island,” one of the resident volunteers reported. “Being aware of our island culture, we decided it would be better to assist, not mandate or regulate.”

The group was led by David Stecher, a mechanical engineer with The Ecological Construction Laboratory of Urbana, Illinois, a non-profit organization that designs highly energy-efficient and healthy houses.

Rural Character: With only 800 permanent residents, Guemes Island is a place where people feel part of a community and value public participation, but where they live – largely in small homes – at the end of quiet lanes among large open spaces and forests. They value their personal safety and they value the lack of pretension in their modest homes, and they worry that rising real estate values and the recent appearance of huge second homes on the island’s coasts are going to change the rural nature of the island.

Focusing at one point on the iconic expression of this change – the big house –SDAT team members Walt Cudnohufsky asked the roundtable to discuss what they feared they would lose if more big houses were built on the island. “Why are big houses such a problem?” he asked. That led the group to discuss how to mitigate those losses: How to ensure homes fit into the rural context, how to reduce wasteful consumption, how to ensure economic and social diversity in the population, and how to buffer the impact of rising real estate values on property taxes.

The group also identified special places on the island that helped the community retain its rural character, and discussed what can be done immediately to be sure that the rural values of those places are protected, given the potential that their ownership or use will change.

Cudnohufsky is a landscape architect from western Massachusetts, who participated as a local volunteer in an SDAT project in western Massachusetts before agreeing to volunteer as an SDAT team member on Guemes Island.

Transportation: The transportation group decided to organize its discussions in three areas – the ferry (which provides the only access to the island), the state of the island’s roads, and alternative modes of transportation. Much of the group’s work focused on the issues of ferry schedules and costs, as the island’s residents have long believed that the limited ferry hours were a major tool in limiting the island’s growth. Through the SDAT process, however, the participants also began to recognize how the ferry served as an informal community “place” where neighbors meet neighbors and news is exchanged.

At the end of the working sessions, the group adopted a vision statement calling for a “comprehensive public transport system, seamlessly integrated with the county-wide transit system” that is “affordable, sustainable and fueled by alternative energy sources,” involves education, public participation and incentives for alternative modes of transportation, and “promotes the island’s rural character.”

Water resources: One of the most limited resources on Guemes Island is the water supply, of which about 90% comes from the sole source aquifer that underlies the island. Already, seawater intrusion into the aquifer has required some areas of the island to rely on expensive reverse osmosis water treatment. And, in defense, many homeowners have turned to rainwater collection for both potable and non-potable water uses.

The roundtable led by R. Warren Flint, an ecologist and sustainability consultant with Five E’s Unlimited in Seattle, approached the task of identifying alternatives for regulating water use and providing alternative water supply by imagining seven potential futures for the island’s development, from catastrophic water failure to stopping growth entirely. Identifying water supply and quality problems associated with each of those potential scenarios provided the team an opportunity to also suggest potential solutions to each of those problems, resulting in a list of potential actions for final consideration.

Open Space, Wildlife and Shoreline: According to GIPAC, one of the highly valued characteristics of the island for residents is the wildlife, marine life and open space of the island. However, as the roundtable focusing on this area quickly discovered, island residents had a variety of perspectives on wildlife. Further, the island appeared to have no pressing critical wildlife issues, such as endangered species.

Therefore, rather than focus on specific wildlife species or regulations, SDAT team member Glenn Acomb, a landscape architect from the University of Florida, asked the group to identify a list of potential actions that the island could take to protect open space and important wildlife areas into the future. In addition, the group discussed how to better protect shoreline quality, and how to enlist shoreline property owner assistance in protecting that property. The group also discussed recommendations for reaching out to large landowners with information about open space preserves, land trusts and low-impact development, and reaching out to homeowners with information about encouraging diversity in backyard flora and fauna.

On Thursday, following the roundtable sessions, the SDAT team will take the collected wisdom of the community and form a proposal for action. Thursday night, the experts will present their proposal at a public meeting, where they will receive feedback for a final report that will be completed following the visit.

- Marj Charlier, AIA Team Member


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