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Tug of war over chip seal: the curious case of Watmough Head Road | Letters
Editor's note: The San Juan County Council will determine whether Watmough Head Road will be chip sealed when it meets July 26, in Friday Harbor; the topic is slated to be discussed by the council at 9 a.m.
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I first learned of the plan to chip-seal Watmough Head Road when I read a "Letter to the Editor" in The Island's Weekly in early June, just a few weeks before the project was scheduled to begin.
The plan to pave came as a surprise to many.
In 2010, the Department of Public Works presented the county with a figure for estimated cost savings from paving projects that might take place this year. At that time Public Works did not provide information that specifically listed Watmough as a road under consideration for conversion from gravel to chip-seal in 2011. We have since been told that this omission was an oversight, and procedures have hopefully been put into place to prevent a similar error in the future.
After hearing of the plan to pave the road, I, and others, immediately wrote to the County Council and Department of Public Works stating opposition. In a phone conversation with Public Works staff, I expressed my concern that factors other than "cost" might not have been considered when Watmough Road was slated for chip-sealing.
I was told that, although Public Works was aware that the paving of this road had been a "point of contention" in the past, the current plan was a cost-saving measure, and that Watmough Road had been chosen primarily because of high fuel costs involved in moving equipment from the Public Works "shop" to the road (a distance of about 10 miles) and that paving would reduce those costs by requiring fewer trips over the long-haul.
In response to public concern, the council agreed to allot one-half hour at its June 14 meeting to hear public comment, and also to allow Public Works an opportunity to present its case in favor of paving. The outcome of this meeting was that a motion was passed (4-2) to postpone the chip-sealing of Watmough Head Road for one month.
Local property owners, both the majority who were opposed and the minority who were in favor of the project, were given separate tasks, and their presentations will be heard at the July 26 council meeting. Those opposed to paving were asked to use the time to come up with a private funding strategy to "make up the difference" in the sum of the county's projected "lost" savings, if it were to continue to maintain the road as gravel. Those in favor of paving were asked to use the time to come up with evidence of more support for the project.
I came away from that meeting grateful for the delay, but was very concerned by the council's suggestion that a group of private citizens should find a way to "buy" their way out of this predicament by raising funds that would then be used to continue to maintain this county road in the same way that it has been maintained for years. (In my opinion, this strategy should be rejected as a matter of principle.)
The meeting left me with the impression that the question was primarily being framed as a matter of concern only to the property owners most directly affected (a neighborhood problem), and that the complexity of the issue had been reduced to budgetary considerations and the problem of dust. These are both important topics for consideration, but there are other concerns of arguably greater significance that should also be factored in.
Unlike other roads that the county might consider for conversion, the fate of Watmough Head Road represents an issue of public concern because of its historical role in providing a particularly unique and balanced access to public lands, and those lands will most certainly be effected by the permanent changes which result from paving.
It is important to note that the two main reasons given for proceeding with the road both fall into the category of describing the effect of paving by stating predictable "known" outcomes. The paving of the road may have the potential to affect at least some monetary savings for San Juan County. The paving of the road will also affect a reduction of dust for those few property owners who have expressed their concern over it. The problem is that the host of other possible outcomes resulting from paving, while also predictable, are as yet "unknown." It seems that the burden of elucidating these other concerns has fallen to the general public.
One positive result of the extension has been that it has afforded an opportunity for comment from a broader constituency . . . in particular those who take issue with the project for reasons that acknowledge the importance of, but go beyond cost-savings concerns and the preferences of a minority of the neighbors. These additional comments have been (without exception, I think) in keeping with the county's stated policy regarding the need to take into account multiple factors when considering gravel road conversion . . .
"Once a road is paved, it will probably never be returned to gravel surface. Since the possible consequences of this operation can have a major impact on the rural quality of a road, the decision to pave or not to pave should be based on a careful evaluation of all influencing factors" (1995 San Juan County "Scenic Roads Manual").
These "influencing factors" include issues related to the aesthetic and cultural values associated with San Juan County's rural roads, as well as cost, traffic and safety issues, and potential environmental impacts to wetlands and fish habitats.
The following points represent a broad sampling of the views of those members of the community who take exception to the county's plan to pave Watmough Head Rd.:
1. Special Case
The decision to pave this particular road warrants a particularly careful depth of consideration by county administrators and representatives. The county's decision can be expected to affect local property owners, whose regard for the place and opinions on the matter deserve to be weighed. No less importantly, this decision will have various impacts on valued public land holdings that are accessed by it (as well as the people who use them): These lands include Blackie Brady Park, Watmough Bight and Chadwick Hill, as well as Point Colville beyond.
The county's figures regarding the amount of money that will be saved through paving have been questioned. Alternative assessments have shown even lower figures. In either case, the costs represented are small in the context of the county's overall budget for road maintenance. (A savings per year of roughly .0009 of all county road expenses, if the county's current ten-year projection is correct.) It is not known if the County has factored in possible unforeseen expenses related to the need for storm-water management and the impacts of increased, and potentially more toxic, runoff to adjacent shorelines and wetlands. There may be other unanticipated costs. These impacts may be predictable, but are "unknown."
The last section of this county road descends steeply to the public turnoff to the parking lot at Watmough Bay. Bicyclists, sometimes in groups, frequently dismount to walk their bikes up this steep hill after visiting the public recreation area. This same section is part of a longer pedestrian loop which connects the two trail accesses to Chadwick Hill. Bicyclists and pedestrians remain invisible to drivers approaching them until the cars have crested the hill. Regardless of posted speed limits, it can be expected that speeds on Watmough Road will increase after paving. With few exceptions, drivers generally slow down on gravel surfaces, and any safety from reduced speed that is currently afforded to people walking or riding bikes on the road will be lost in the event of paving. This impact is both predictable and highly probable.
As far as I know there is no extant scientific study comparing the environmental impacts of gravel vs. chip-sealed roads that can be definitively pointed to as the "final word" on this subject. It is possible however to examine the data that is available and to come to an informed and educated conclusion. The one science-based assessment that I have come across pertaining specifically to the issue as it relates to Watmough Rd. comes from a local marine ecologist who is familiar with the area. It convincingly concludes that paving will result in an increased likelihood of contamination of the Watmough ecosystem. The lignin-based dust treatment for gravel roads contains significantly fewer contaminants than the petroleum-based asphalt emulsion that is used in chip-sealing. The type and volume, as well as rates and manner of eventual dispersal of these contaminants must be weighed in any assessment that purports to compare the two. At any rate, given the current good health of the wetland and Watmough Bight's role both as an important feeding ground for juvenile Chinook salmon and as a nursery for Pacific cod, it seems ill-advised to embark on a course of action which might endanger the status quo of this valued resource.
It is not known to what degree the currently slightly bumpy, somewhat dusty, "long and winding road" into the Watmough/Colville area has contributed historically to the fine balance that has, so far, seen these public lands used at sustainable levels. It is often the case that those BLM lands that remain best preserved are those which are accessed via "unimproved" roads. In the case of Watmough Head Road, which is maintained by the County, the BLM does not have the option of considering paving vs. gravel, and how that choice might relate to the subject of conservation. This is perhaps one more reason why the County should consider choosing the "conservative" option . . . the option to maintain the road as it already exists, when deciding how to proceed at Watmough.
6. Aesthetic / Cultural Considerations
A review of public response in the form of letters and emails to the Council reveals numerous attempts to emphasize the importance of including "aesthetic" considerations when deciding the fate of Watmough Head Rd. It is often described as a "transition" road. Visually, it offers a transition from open fields and farmlands with scattered houses, through woods with glimpses of water and shoreline, finally descending into the shade and filtered sunlight of old forest. The road also provides a transition from hard surface to gravel, which mirrors the very subjective experience of transitioning from a fast pace to a slower one, of entering not only physically, but also with a heightened awareness into a different kind of place. The sound and sensation of gravel under car wheels are audible and tactile signals that now . . something is different. How to describe this experience to those who are not sensitive to it? For those who are, this section of the road triggers the pleasurable recognition that the journey, after all IS the destination. As it stands, (and as it has stood for many years and for many people) the destination in question begins at the corner of Watmough Head and Aleck Bay Roads, where the pavement ends.
I do not know how regularly the council is asked to take these sorts of "finer" points into consideration when they decide how the county will or will not spend money. It does seem clear (given the broad significance of this decision) that in this case, it is particularly contingent upon them to do so.
The simplest solution would be for the council to recognize that the original inclusion of Watmough Head Rd. among those roads slated for chip-sealing was simply an error. The road currently has a good layer of gravel. The county should proceed with a dust-mitigation treatment, and we should all carry on as if the whole thing never happened.
(The council may be contacted before the July 26 meeting via email or post.)