John Taylor, executive director of the King County Department of Local Services, spoke to members of The Vashon-Maury Island Community Council last week about numerous topics that are impacting the island and region — some old, some new, all taking on new importance in the throes of life with COVID-19.
Taylor began his remarks with congratulations for the group for taking the steps to incorporate formally, adding that the presence of an open forum for discussion where islanders and county officials may collaborate has been missing on Vashon.
The department of local services writ large, he said, has already faced significantly disruptive episodes since its creation in 2018, such as the wrath of a historic snowfall last year and landslide events across the county, in addition to working on the King County Comprehensive Plan update — passed by the council last week — and seeing the department’s other obligations through.
“The wheels of government continue to turn even in a global pandemic,” Taylor said.
More recently, several senior staff members were enlisted to assist with the county’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, the department has worked to dispense resources such as PPE and hand sanitizer across unincorporated King County, simultaneously launching a small business grant program that Taylor said received a great deal of interest from Vashon.
“We’re going to start churning through those applications and trying to get money out the door as quickly as we can to businesses that have been impacted by COVID,” he said, noting that for many small businesses, the grant — providing up to $5,000 to those eligible — can help keep doors open for a while longer as the county rides out the pandemic. The application period for the first round of the program has ended, and information on how to apply for the next round of funding will be shared soon.
Taylor weighed in on issues that more directly affect the island, answering 10 questions submitted beforehand from islanders. He first responded to a question from Bianca Perla, director of the Vashon Nature Center, about the seeming increase of illegal dumping from RVs at sites that volunteers survey, including near beaches and in storm drains that lead to Shinglemill Creek, one of Vashon’s largest salmon-bearing waterways.
The Vashon Treatment Plant does not have any capacity to dispose of pumped-out waste from RVs and campers. The nearest county facility that can receive waste is the South Treatment Plant in Renton.
Taylor said he recognizes the issue is exacerbated by the island’s lack of any means for RV owners to dispose of waste, noting that the phenomena has been raised before. He said he is figuring out a solution closer to home. The county will likely seek out the services of a wastewater hauler on the island to help address the problem once they can determine costs, he said.
As for other household refuse, Taylor had an update about the feasibility study underway since April in collaboration with Zero Waste Vashon to determine if the island could support a composting facility. No specific sites are being evaluated at this time, he said, adding that from his experience in the solid waste industry, it’s hard to build such facilities without impacting surrounding properties, and they’re expensive to operate.
“In all cases, they’re a challenge to get up and running, and you need a pretty big market to make it work,” he said.
He recommended that islanders wait for the results of the feasibility study before making judgments about developing a composting facility on Vashon. A public forum is planned in the coming months to discuss the study’s findings.
And Jim Garrison of the Burton Water Company inquired about any available update on the recycled asphalt millings stored on Vashon, asking whether the material will be removed from the island soon, and what could be done in the future to combat other threats to Vashon’s aquifer.
Taylor said that he was unable to comment about ongoing litigation and code enforcement cases that are open regarding use of the millings but acknowledged that the county “was not as timely as we could have been in responding” to the situation initially, noting he was not at the department when the millings saga first began.
“I think the formation of this group is a great way to create a forum when issues like this arise in the future,” he said. “I believe that if we were doing a project of that scope and scale today, we would probably approach the community in a really different way than we did at the time.”
Other questions focused on commerce and everyday life on Vashon. A question was asked about whether restaurants will be permitted to expand seating to right-of-ways and in parking lots. Taylor noted King County Executive Dow Constantine had recently given the go-ahead by signing an executive order that outlines a framework allowing businesses to apply for approval of such plans.
“We’re trying to move quickly to respond to COVID-19 so that businesses that don’t have outdoor space can actually access it right now during these months where they can set up seating outside,” he said, adding that there are certain requirements around insurance and providing the county indemnification for establishments using right-of-ways.
Islander Richard Gordon submitted a question asking if the county should consider creating a new bypass around downtown Vashon in light of suggestions to reserve that space for pedestrians, an idea proposed in a recent Beachcomber commentary calling for a pedestrian-only main street — though Gordon noted not everyone is on board.
“We are willing to look at anything if there’s a proposal to close the main drag through downtown,” Taylor said. “You know your community better than I do. There are absolutely pros and cons with doing that in terms of traffic disruption, but we’re happy to look at any ideas the community has about ways to create more vitality in the downtown commercial district.”
Taylor added that he “would be remiss” without talking about funding for the Roads Services Division. The county faces a $100 million shortfall annually just to address basic maintenance of the road network. For this biennium, Taylor said islanders should expect the same level of service from Roads county-wide, but looking ahead, without a “fundamental change” to the revenue stream Roads has access to, maintenance will be necessarily scaled back and crews will have to hold off on capital projects, save for keeping existing thoroughfares as safe for travel as possible.
There was less to say about other topics. Taylor answered a question asking what King County is doing to help reopen the beleaguered West Seattle Bridge. He noted that the bridge is owned by the city of Seattle and out of the county’s hands, though several county officials live in West Seattle and understand the severity of the situation.
“There is an acute interest in solving this issue. With that said, it’s purely within the responsibility of the city of Seattle how they resolve this and how they prioritize it,” he said, adding that the county is communicating with the city to assist however possible. He reiterated that the outlook is bleak — whether the existing structure is deemed integral enough to reopen to traffic, it will have to be replaced within a decade — and has already amounted to a problematic commute into downtown, even with many still in lockdown or working from home.
Another question was submitted about the issue of affordable housing on Vashon. Taylor said he could offer little more than his hope that additional initiatives will aim to bring more affordable housing to the unincorporated areas, noting the micro-housing demonstration project that is planned to take shape south of town. The county comprehensive plan lists exploring the construction of multi-family micro-housing in unincorporated areas as a priority action in an effort to address housing affordability challenges in the community. In recent years, many on the island have advocated for other options as well, ones that may suit both families and individuals.
Following the question and answer session, council members discussed the process of electing a board. The next meeting will be hosted at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 17, on Webex. Included on the agenda is a presentation from the Port of Seattle about airplane noise and placing a noise monitor on the island.
For more information, visit vmicc.net.