||| BY MATTHEW GILBERT, theORCASONIAN OP-ED REPORTER |||
On August 23, Kendra Smith, Director of Environmental Stewardship, updated the County Council on the progress of the Sustainable Tourism Management Plan (STMP). The vision and the goals have passed initial scrutiny, and the consultants and project managers are now in the middle of reconciling wishes with what is feasible.
“Tourism in the San Juans is balanced and sustainable, protecting and nurturing our unique environment while supporting a vibrant rural community and a thriving year-round economy.”
- Protect, conserve, and interconnect natural environment and open space for ecological and recreational benefits.
- Build resilience to climate change by reducing carbon footprint and adapting infrastructure and services.
- Adapt infrastructure to accommodate seasonal variations in use.
- Preserve community well-being through ensuring equity and maintaining the rural lifestyle.
- Expand access to bike trails and trails, public transit, and other mobility methods to ensure transportation is accessible and affordable to all.
- Support a year-round, thriving, and diverse community and economy by balancing investment and strategic promotion of island activities.
- Support the local economy by creating a network to build resiliency and expanding (and maintaining) local control and ownership of tourist activities.
These are noble aspirations while also weighted down with plenty of subjective interpretation. For example, how do you define a “rural lifestyle”? What is an acceptable balance of “ecological and recreational benefits” when one starts to cannibalize the other?
Council members had little to say at this point. Jamie Stephens asked to be “kept in the loop earlier (since) some of the examples [a sample list of action items included in the update] are in our control and some are not, eg, adding parking meters for nonresidents.” Cindy Wolf noted that a lot of ideas are “road-related and climate-related . . . How are you circulating this information to other departments?” Smith assured her this was already in motion, especially with regards to Public Works and Climate & Sustainability. Christine Minney asked about the proposed Green Certification Process. “This is yet to be determined,” said Smith, explaining that it’s “an effort to single out local business efforts” that serve sustainability and lower the county’s carbon footprint.
Specific actions that have been proposed for Orcas Island include adding miles of bike lanes, “reorganizing” parking at Mt. Constitution, Mountain Lake, and Obstruction Pass, developing parking and trails at Point Lawrence, dedicating “one Eastsound parking lot for short-term parking to handle ferry rushes,” building utility lines for new bike trails, and adding 35 lodging
units “for seasonal workers and stranded visitors.” Funding mechanisms are yet to be determined. There has been conveniently little talk about “capacity thresholds” or optimal numbers of “manageable visitors” – a conversation that should not be avoided.
One of the county’s favorite boogeymen, Orcas resident Joe Symons, points out that the population of the San Juans as of July 2021 (according to the US Census) is 18,557 – “about 14% of the legally established total development rights as assigned to each tax parcel.” The long-running update of the county’s Comprehensive Plan pivots around a population forecast of 19,423 by 2035 – a difference of less than 1,000 from more than a year ago. That forecast may have already been reached, or likely will be by the time the Plan staggers to the finish line. One indication: San Juan Sanitation reports that first-quarter sales of landscaping and fill dirt had equaled all of 2021. Are the architects of both plans talking to each other? It is common knowledge that population growth and visitor traffic are directly correlated.
Second quarter sales and lodging tax revenue (representing February through April “business activity”) have continued earlier trends: countywide sales tax (including construction, licensing, online orders, etc.) is up 12% from last year’s record-breaking numbers, while lodging taxes are down from last year (-17%). That said, all figures are considerably higher than pre-pandemic
levels, even on San Juan, where lodging taxes are down 36% from last year. The story is quite different on Orcas, however, where 2021 records are being broken again as lodging taxes continue to run above last year’s numbers.
A report on findings and public processes to-date, along with a database of recommended actions island-by-island, is available on the STMP website. The county is continuing to work with the consulting team and specific departments to add implementation details such as data gaps, performance metrics, timelines, and funding needs. The goal is to have the first half of the plan ready for public comment by late Fall.
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