On Monday morning, February 25, 2013, a notice was sent out from the Skagit County web server announcing a special ceremony the next day. The purpose was to celebrate Skagit County’s receipt of the Smart Communities Award from former Governor Gregoire and to recognize the outstanding contributions of over 60 local community leaders in a project that had taken over three years and cost in excess of 1.2 million, most of the amount in tax dollars, in the form of a grant from the EPA. The county was obligated for an additional third of that, but was able to satisfy the requirement by “in-kind” contributions utilizing paid staff as well as volunteers. After an intense process of goal setting, obtaining grant money, establishing committees, hiring inspiring speakers, obtaining studies from well paid consultants, conducting local meetings to obtain citizen involvement in predetermined outcomes and drafting a series of recommendations, the project was presented to the public and elevated to the Skagit Council of Governments (SCOG) in April 2012 for consideration and implementation. So, an awards ceremony recognizing the county for its progressive vision and complementing those who played a key role seemed appropriate after the completion of such a long and arduous task.
It is perhaps ironic then that on the previous Wednesday afternoon, February 20th, the SCOG narrowly defeated a resolution that was a watered downed version of only one of the recommendations that had been proposed by the project’s citizen advisory committee. The other recommendations, which were based on Envision Skagit’s nine major goals, had either been rejected outright or incrementally dropped from subsequent proposed resolutions in the face of persistent opposition from the public and lack of support from key members of the SCOG itself. It seemed like a rather ignominious ending for a project that was avidly promoted as Skagit County’s opportunity to secure a bright and happy future for the next 50 years.
Envision Skagit 2060’s lack of success resulted from a disconnect between its proponents, who included the county commissioners and county planning department staff desirous of grant money, their paid consultants and a specially chosen Citizen Committee, and the opposition, who were just interested residents of the county worried about what this project would mean for them and their heirs. The proponents were satisfied with essentially sentencing future generations of county residents to lives of reduced freedom as well as less material wealth and convenience in order to accomplish their visionary goals of abundant green infrastructure, open spaces and greenways. Their ideal was to crowd people into densely packed urban growth areas. Building up and not out was a catchphrase. Residences were typically to be clustered in multistoried buildings. Retail establishments would occupy the ground floors. Almost everything a person needed or did would be in walking distance. The goal was to limit people living in rural areas to only 10% of the population.
Getting around in the county was also supposed to change as an emphasis on mass transit apparently would displace the American preference for individual cars and trucks. The citizens committee proposed increasing rail traffic, more buses and vans, and even water transport.
Concerns about an increase in flooding due to climate change led to a recommendation to remove residents from Hamilton and Cape Horn. Opponents of the project understandably sensed a threat to property rights with the emphasis on relocations, redesigning zoning laws to confine populations into specifically identified urban growth areas and widening non-use corridors along the Skagit and Samish rivers.
Envision Skagit 2060 only tepidly addressed the real need of Skagit County, now and in the future; economic vitality. What was addressed was mostly in vague terms. The most specific proposal was to set aside 1600 acres of land on Bayview Ridge for industrial purposes. Otherwise, there was only a recommendation to encourage sustainable businesses that enabled people to work without long commutes and which made sustainable use of sustainable resources. “Sustainable” was a word used frequently during the entire envisioning process.
The unfortunate truth is that healthy environments and high “livability” standards are found almost exclusively in wealthy societies. And prosperity requires an energized, mobile population in search of economic advantage. Mobility, except for the ability to travel short distances under pedal power, was actually discouraged under this plan by its very nature. The primary reason that people freely move to crowded enclaves, such as major and even medium sized cities, is economic opportunity. That transcends all other considerations. If the leaders of Skagit County wanted its demographic to include more than retirees, drug dealers and a few farmers, Envision Skagit 2060 wasn’t the program to look to for guidance. In fact, it was a blueprint for stagnation and blight.
The Citizen Committee stated that its most consequential recommendation was the creation of a “Skagit Alliance,” which was a supra-county decision making authority comprised of public and private sector leaders. Apparently, unaware or unconcerned that this was a real threat to representative democracy at the local level, the committee promoted this regional entity as a means to “implement a unified approach to growth, development and conservation over the next 50 years.”
Public meetings were held in April and May of 2012. An additional Envision Skagit 2060 related forum was held in June, which was an attempt to shore up climate change assertions that provided the basis for key elements of the program. At the meetings, many of the oral comments centered on property rights protection and questioned the necessity for the expense and effort of creating the envisioning scheme. One person mentioned that the program appeared to undermine the Growth Management Act. Some people pointed out the remarkable similarity in process and results of Envision Skagit to numerous other programs around the country. Another person wondered if the county hadn’t got shortchanged by this apparent cookie cutter approach. Although it elicited emphatic denials from presenters and synchronized eye rolls from attending cognoscenti, a few individuals suggested Envision Skagit 2060 had ties to Agenda 21, citing the proposed program’s social engineering goals in line with the UN program, as well as the county’s membership in ICLEI. Skagit County had joined ICLEI in 2009 at the beginning of the Envision Skagit creation process. ICLEI is a NGO, headquartered in Bonn, Germany, that was set up to help local governments implement Agenda 21. Reportedly, as of 2011, the county has let its membership lapse.
During the meetings in the spring, and subsequent SCOG meetings in the fall, those opposed to the project were clearly in the majority and the comments reflected that. The negativity with which Envision Skagit 2060 was greeted obviously did not go unnoticed by public officials and undoubtedly led to the program’s defeat. It is not surprising then that there were hard feelings. According to the February 27th edition of the Skagit Valley Herald, in the midst of the celebratory affair, disparaging remarks were directed against Envision Skagit detractors by Citizens Committee spokesman, Tim Rosenhan. Opponents of the project were collectively labeled “tinfoil hat Taliban.”
One of the criticisms of those opposed to Envision Skagit 2060 is that they are against all planning. That’s a straw man argument. More than a few opponents stated publically in previous forums that they weren’t against planning, just this particular plan. In the end, Envision Skagit 2060 went down to defeat because its recommendations didn’t fit the current and future needs of Skagit County. And some of the recommendations were not simply unsuitable, but patently ridiculous. The question now is will some official, motivated by ideology or dreams of career advancement, attempt to resurrect a version of this discredited program in one form or another?
The complete Envision Skagit 2060 Citizen Committee Final Recommendations can be found here.
A more in depth critique of the committee’s recommendations is on the Skagit Republicans website.