With Puget Sound booming, panel will discuss island’s fate

As people continue to flock to the Northwest and people in communities far from Seattle cope with the resulting changes, islanders will address the subject of growth Thursday night at the panel discussion, “Growing Pains, How Will Vashon Survive the Economic Boom.”

The event, a fundraiser for Vashon High School’s newspaper and yearbook programs, will include three panelists with perspectives that encompass real estate, social services, the natural environment and how communities around the state are fairing. Organizers of the event held a similar panel last year, dedicated to journalism in an age of “alternative facts.” This year, Jil Stenn, who is organizing the event along with Anne Atwell and Mary Bruno, said they wanted to focus on matters close to home. The issue of growth rose to the top.

“All of us feel impacted one way or another by the growth that is happening in the Puget Sound region,” Stenn said. “It is something that is on a lot of people’s minds.”

Moreover, Stenn said, all of the organizers are unsettled by the tone of communication coming from the Washington, D.C., and they set another objective for the evening: to be a model of civil discourse.

“We wanted to try to bring together folks of varying points of view who could have a conversation about those different points of view in a productive and civil way,” she said.

The panel includes two well known islanders, Emma Amiad and Greg Rabourn and Seattleite Knute Berger. Amiad is a longtime real estate agent and social activist and heads the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homeless-ness. Rabourn is King County’s wa-tershed steward, responsible for re-storing and safeguarding habitat on Vashon and Maury Islands. Berger, who also appeared on last year’s panel, is the former editor-in-chief of the Seattle Weekly and is a columnist at Crosscut. He has traveled extensively around the state in the last year and has seen the effects of this area’s growth extend to the borders of the state and beyond.

Bruno will moderate. She noted that Vashon’s creation of Community Service Area Plan with King County last year — which drew controversy around incentives to create affordable housing — is part of the reason for this year’s topic. But she said wants to explore other issues, including those related to the cost of housing and higher property taxes and how local employment is affected by those changes.

Like Stenn, she said she hopes the discourse will be polite and that the evening will help answer an important question: “What are the values of the island community and how do we put them into action rather than pay lip service to them?”

Each of the three panelists spoke last week about the challenges facing the region.

Rabourn, whose work is focused on land and water, said that he sees a race against time in a few areas: to preserve and protect what is left and where possible, to restore what has been lost.

King County acted in a forward-thinking way when it implemented its Growth Management Act in 1990 he said. Now, in the midst of historic growth, 97 percent of that growth has occurred in urban areas, not rural areas.

Rabourn also mentioned orcas and salmon, saying that not only do we need to protect them, but we must undo some things have already been done that hinder their survival.

As in an influx of people come to this area, he said that he believes growth can co-exist with protecting the natural environment. Housing should be directed where it makes the most sense, he added, near services and transportation. And conservation efforts often revolve around water: shorelines, lakes and rivers, in areas that are not often suitable for homes.

“I do not think it is an either-or thing at all,” he said.

Amiad’s professional life is focused on people looking to buy houses; her volunteer work is focused on helping people in financial need — a combination that provides a a rare view into Vashon’s community at a crossroads.

She believes Vashon is becoming a Northwest version of Nantucket.

“There is no way to stop it. I cannot imagine what could stop it,” she said.

While the subject of the panel discussion is growth, she said that Vashon itself is not growing, but changing.

“You have to be wealthy to live here now,” she said.

The exception, she added, is for people who already owned houses here — and preferably for a long time.

Currently, the average price of a home on Vashon is $650,000, she said, and she has begun to show houses off-island to try to help people find affordable options.

“Every single day I talk to people that cannot buy here. I ask them, ‘Would you consider Port Orchard or Tacoma?’ It breaks my heart.”

She said she believes King County is partially to blame for the lack of affordable housing on the island. A lot of land is not buildable on Vashon because of the restrictions of the Critical Areas Ordinance, and there are considerable other regulatory roadblocks as well. She noted that one islander has been trying to make his property available for renters with Section 8 vouchers — and the process so far has taken a year because of county requirements. Additionally, she said, some at King County encourage innovation, only to have others at the county squelch it.

“We have to speak with one voice for a change in talking to King County,” she said. “We need to say we are voters, we are taxpayers, you owe us something, and we want our share. We deserve to have services for our money.”

Across the water, Knute Berger is a third-generation Seattleite. For Crosscut, he has traveled the state extensively since the last presidential election. He has seen the far-reaching effects of the areas growth up into British Columbia and down to Oregon.

“Growth and sprawl and changing demographics are an issue everywhere,” he said.

In Wenatchee, he said there is a tremendous shortage of affordable housing. Residents there blame people from Seattle who have bought houses for a second home or to retire. This pattern has repeated itself in many places in the state. While it is not the sole reason for a lack of housing, he said people point to it as a problem.

“They see somebody from Microsoft come in and buy a house in Chelan, and suddenly there is less housing for people who live and work there,” he added.

He noted that when Seattleites retire, they often want to move out of the city, so they sell their home — now for a high price — and head to other communities, such as Bellingham and Port Townsend. This change has had the same effect that Californians had on the region, when many moved here years ago, much to the complaints of area residents.

“Seattleites are the new Californians. A lot of Seattle people do not think of themselves that way, but the impact they have in some of the communities they are moving to …. is pretty significant on folks who have been there,” he said. “I am seeing a lot of large-scale reshuffling.”

Berger noted that while change is happening in a lot of rural areas, the areas themselves differ.

“I know that Vashon wants to preserve its rural character, but that is not the same as having a vibrant rural economy,” he added.

Looking ahead, Berger shared what he believes in in store for the area.

“I really believe that the future of the Puget Sound region, from Vancouver to Portland, is an urban future. I think we are going to urbanize intensively and rapidly. … I am not choosing that future, but I can see the handwriting on the wall,” he said.

The panel discussion is free, but donations are encouraged. The event is also a Guest Bartender Night and will include a raffle. The whole event will be from 6 to 9 p.m. tomorrow, Thursday, Feb. 15, at The Hardware Store Restaurant. The panel discussion will begin at 7 p.m. VOV will air the conversation.