Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee:

AIA Comes to Guemes Island, Day 3

“This process isn’t about losing – losing rights or independence or anything. It’s about gaining – gaining as an individual, as neighbors, as a community.”

“People seemed to understand the importance of sustainability. They had been thinking about the issues, they came prepared to contribute to the discussion, and they did so in meaningful, constructive and creative ways.”

About The American Institute of Architects

For almost 150 years, members of The American Institute of Architects have worked with each other and their communities to create more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings and cityscapes. AIA members haveaccess to the right people, knowledge, and tools to create better design, and through such resources and access, they help clients and communities make their visions real.

For further information contact Roz Glasser at (360) 588-0160 or

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


GUEMES ISLAND – It was a beautiful early summer night on this island far north in Puget Sound. Yet, instead of paddling out in boats to view the sunset or share a beer on the porch of the general store with friends, 188 of the 800 island residents crowded into the small community hall here, many standing along the walls as the chairs filled up.

The topic, however, wasn’t the kind of sudden catastrophe that generally brings communities together in meeting halls, but a concern about the distant future – about the sustainability of their island.

The meeting marked the end of a three-day Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT) visit sponsored by the AIA’s Center for Communities by Design. The SDAT method is a charrette process designed to help communities committed to planning for a sustainable future by recruiting out-of-town (usually out-of-state), objective experts in architecture, landscape architecture, ecology, economics, transportation and other specialties who volunteer to help communities assess their choices and issues and clear a trail toward formulating strategies and solutions.

“This process isn’t about losing – losing rights or independence or anything. It’s about gaining – gaining as an individual, as neighbors, as a community,” Erica Gees, team leader for the community planning process, told the gathered community.

The Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee (GIPAC) applied for the SDAT grant and assistance as a way to accelerate the development of its sub-area plan, a part of the Skagit County Comprehensive plan.

The charrette, held mainly at Guemes Island’s Community Center June 20th through 22nd, included a community tour for the visiting SDAT team and two public meetings along with a day and a half of roundtable meetings where about 60 community stakeholders discussed five areas of interest: transportation; alternative energy; rural character; water supply; and quality, and wildlife, shoreline and open space as well as other issues that were on their mind.

(See for more details about the process and the SDAT program.)

Following the roundtable discussions, the AIA team members prepared findings and recommendations, including some short-term strategies and long-term policies that could help:

preserve the island’s rural character,

conserve water and protect the quality of the island’s sole source aquifer,

resolve transportation disagreements,

protect wildlife and shoreline habitat, and

increase island energy independence.

They presented their findings at the Thursday night meeting.
“The keys to this process are that we bring the objectivity of outside experts that form a multidisciplinary team and we focus on public participation,” said Ann Livingston, Director, Community by Design, a program of the AIA. SDAT team leader Gees, an associate with Kuhn Riddle Architects, Amherst, Mass., stressed that focusing on sustainability, and its three components – the economy, the environment and social/cultural traditions and equity – provided a basis for all community stakeholders to participate in the process by providing a lens through which differing points of view can find common ground.

Illustrating that point was the attendance at the charrette by Skagit County officials, including Don Munks, County Commissioner; Jeanne King and Corrine Storey, of the Skagit County Health Department; Steve Cox, Guemes Ferry Manager; and Jeroldine Hallberg, Betsy Stephensen and Ann Bylin, of the County Planning Department. The relationship between the county and island residents has been severely strained of late over such things as expanded ferry schedules and the interest in self-determination expressed by some island residents.

“It’s gratifying that these county officials saw enough merit in the SDAT process and care enough about the island’s future to put aside their differences and attend the meetings, “ said Gees. After the first few meetings in Guemes, county officials asked Gees if the AIA could help coordinate charrettes in other sub-areas in the county to help resolve log-jams in their planning processes as well, she said. “I’m proud that we have brought a process to the table that will allow the county and its residents to get back together and work out their conflicts.”
Guemes Island had been warned that it would be some time before the county would have the funds to address Guemes Island’s issues, but the community felt development pressures on the eight-square-mile island with incredible coastline views were calling for a more immediate response. The process also brought out the best in the local community, local leaders of the island effort said.

“I was overwhelmed by the public response,” said Roz Glazer, vice chairman of GIPAC. “People seemed to understand the importance of sustainability. They had been thinking about the issues, they came prepared to contribute to the discussion, and they did so in meaningful, constructive and creative ways.” She gives credit to the process, but also to the sensitivity and attitude of the AIA team members. “I think their presence gave this community comfort so that they didn’t feel threatened, even though the experts came from more than 50 miles away,” Glazer said, poking a little fun at the natural provincialism of her adopted, somewhat isolated island.

Throughout the SDAT meetings, community participants commented that the sessions were far more valuable in examining the bases of their prejudices, wishes and positions than they had expected. “One of the things that really impressed me was how many different voices and people, who often disagree, were brought together in this process,” said Edith Walden, an orchard owner on Guemes Island, a local business woman, and one of the roundtable participants. “Having all their input has made us all aware that we do have a community with a common vision. It’s made us all energized and hopeful about our future.”

The results from the SDAT meetings will be used to help develop the island’s sub-area plan, ensuring the AIA and the community that the proposals don’t sit on a shelf and gather dust. Among the recommendations in their final reports were:
Energy independence: Guemes Island has numerous solar, wind and other alternative energy producers among its 800 permanent residents, and the island should work to foster continued experimentation and leadership in energy independence, said 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. In addition, the island should work with state and county officials to promote use of subsidized weatherization programs, investigate building a small scale biodiesel plant for island vehicles, and start a Guemes Energy Efficiency Club (GEEC) to help promote energy efficiency and alternative energy production among officials, businesses and residents. Before the three-day work session had ended, the members of the energy roundtable had agreed to set up the club, and many volunteered to work on it.

Transportation: Jack Werner, a consultant from the Climate Institute of Washington, D.C., recommended that islanders improve their communications with city of Anacortes and county officials and to help resolve disputes over their ferry service, which provides the only public access to the island. His roundtable developed several recommendations for the county for capital improvements to parking, landings, waiting areas and bicycle storage at the ferry terminals. They also developed suggestions for fare structures that would encourage car-free travel, recommended that islanders improve road signage to reduce speeding and improve safety for bicycle traffic, expand biodiesel production on the island to fuel the ferry and other vehicles, develop photovoltaic charging stations for electric vehicles and explore the possibility of producing ethanol on the island.

Rural character: To preserve the unpretentiousness and small scale of island buildings, Walt Cudnohufsky, a landscape architect from western Massachusetts, encouraged the islanders to establish voluntary architectural guidelines for new construction to help newcomers understand the island’s culture and style. “Islanders embrace values reflecting a strong sense of community, neighborliness, an unhurried pace of life, respect for privacy, awareness of history, stewardship for land and shore, creativity and an independent spirit,” said Cudnohufsky. He also suggested that islanders seek to cluster development and to initiate an island open space fund in order to keep the rural open space even as new residents come to the island. Islanders can help preserve their rural culture and introduce newcomers to it by developing an inclusive welcome-wagon program and by offering more tours of gardens, art, forestlands, wildlife and innovative energy projects.

Water resources: Warren Flint, an ecologist and sustainability consultant with Five E’s Unlimited in Seattle, commented that the island should work to collect important data of the overall island water supply to develop a scientifically based water budget for the Guemes Island system that is understandable by all stakeholders. He also recommended that the island conduct education and awareness regarding Island water resources, encourage cooperation between Washington Department of Ecology and Skagit Country Planning and Health Departments, insure that all wells and homes are metered for water use, limit impervious surfaces on the island to enhance recharge capacity and minimize freshwater runoff, encourage clustered domestic waste water treatment facilities for failed septic systems, encourage home water conservation, increase shoreline setbacks, and reduce the allowable building size to lot size ratio.

Wildlife, shorelines and open space: About 70% of the island’s shoreline properties are owned by senior citizens, and in light of their imminent transfer, islanders should find ways to protect or acquire them for wildlife and public access, said Glenn Acomb, a landscape architect from the University of Florida. In addition, he recommended that islanders protect or restore interior island lands that are important to open space, wildlife or for the island’s aquifer by working with state wildlife agencies and educating the public about the importance of protection.

In addition to the specific interest area recommendations, team leader Gees suggested that the community forge new relationships with neighboring communities to help resolve issues, and to continue to work with the Samish tribe, whose interests in their former tribal lands are in line with the interest on the part of the island to protect its rural character, island ecology and cultural heritage.

Over the next year, the SDAT team members and AIA staff will be available to the community leadership for consultation, and a couple of team members will revisit the community after a year to provide additional feedback and expertise as needed.

- Marj Charlier, AIA Team Member


(There are no comments yet.)
add a comment: