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    The great Vashon Island library war

    It's a small library near a small town, but it's turned into a pitchfork battle over urban land use. The lordly King County Library System is learning a lesson about messing with local parks boards.
    A Vashon scene

    A Vashon scene Vashon Park District

    A lot of Vashon Island residents have felt besieged this year, and not just by the economy: The state ferry system, strapped for cash, contemplated drastically jacking fares and slashing service. Glacier Northwest started to replace an old dock at the edge of Maury Island with a new one that will enable it to develop what a local protest group calls “the largest gravel mine in the United States in the middle of Puget Sound.” And the King County Library System may replace the current library, in the unincorporated town of Vashon, with a new one a mile down the highway on the site of the abandoned K-2 ski factory.

    Some people think a library move would be just fine, but most (80 percent) of those who responded to a recent Community Council survey, mailed out to registered voters by King County Councilman Dow Constantine think the library should stay in town, and most think the K-2 site would be bad. The survey just confirmed the sentiment expressed by most of the crowd that greeted KCLS director Bill Ptacek and his colleagues at a Vashon meeting earlier this year, and four hours of Vashon testimony inflicted on the library board during a recent meeting at KCLS headquarters in Issaquah.

    The current library stands in a park, back from the highway, across the grass from the island's largest children's play area. The new site would be K-2's old machine shop, a late-1940s cinder block building with underground oil storage tanks that juts out into the highway right-of-way. The shop stands just northeast of the main K-2 factory, a huge manufacturing facility that seems anomalous on Vashon, where the largest employers these days are the school district and Thriftway. Anomalous or not, K-2 started on Vashon, and ten years ago, 700 people worked there.

    Those jobs are long gone, and the old factory building has stood vacant for years. Private developers have a grand — some think grandiose — scheme for its re-use. Last fall, Constantine got the property rezoned from Industrial to Community Business, without going through the normal rezone process. Some community members who were neither stupid nor self-interested clearly supported the rezone; many liked the idea of turning an industrial eyesore into a community asset. But, many other residents didn't support it; they feared K-2 development would kill downtown retail, and would make a mockery of community planning. Some eyebrows were raised over the fact that four of the hosts for Constantine's recent Vashon fundraiser were the K-2 developers and their wives.

    Some people see the expanse of unused parking space at the K-2 site as a reason to put the library there; they figure pedestrian access is irrelevant, since most people drive to the current site, anyway. But others told the library board in Issaquah that they walked regularly with young kids between the current library and the playground, and invited board members to try walking along the highway shoulder as cars whizzed by.

    Of course, abundant free parking has helped make America a land of malls and sprawl. The state Growth Management Act, which is supposed to prevent rural sprawl, and everyone’s current lip-service to halting climate change, which would require driving less, both suggest that public facilities should be accessible to pedestrians — whether or not they choose to walk. The King County Comprehensive Plan says: “Rural towns should be compact, promoting pedestrian and non-motorized travel . . . New development should . . . strengthen the desirable characteristics and historic character of the town.”

    Before the library system started negotiating with the would-be K-2 redevelopers, it negotiated with the Vashon Park District, which owns the land on which the current library stands, about putting a larger building on or near the site. Those earlier negotiations broke down. The local Vashon Beachcomber has explained, "the park board wrote that, since 'it disapproves of a remodel of the existing library building,' it would not give the library system a long-term lease at Ober Park.”

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    Posted Thu, May 7, 7:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    I care. I use the library often. I want it kept right where it is. Do you hear that, Ptacek?

    Great job as always, Dan. Thanks.


    Posted Thu, May 7, 8:23 a.m. Inappropriate

    Moving a local library to a 'development' zone is not new with KCLS. Just ask the residents of Black Diamond. It took them more than 10 years to get their updated library in town rather than the outside of town preferred by library central management. After Black Diamond residents won the battle, KCLS central management changed siting rules (making them more open to interpretation).

    Of course when I say 'central management' I really mean Bill Ptacek.

    There is no doubt that KCLS is a great library, but that's because the employees the public interact with are such a dedicated group.

    AS aresult of the lack of oversight, most employees are now union members (only upper management and some administrative staff are exempted). There was no union when Mr. Ptacek became library director. Most recently Pages (an entry-level position) who now cannot work more than 69-hours a month for more than 5 months each calendar year voted to join a union. Why? Having the '69 hour' rule as a written Human Resources Policy, the library can and does refuse this group either retirement benefits or health coverage.

    Long ago Seattle Public Library and more recently King County employees both won class-actions lawsuits over the '69-hour' rule. I hope library users will help both these employees and communities like Vashon who love their libraries and don't want to be dismissed.


    Posted Thu, May 7, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

    Let's be clear about why many Vashon residents don't want the library to move: they fear change. Vashon is notorious for trying to keep Vashon in the 1970s, keep people from moving here, keep local businesses suffering, etc. Believe it or not, there are people on Vashon who believe we should all grow our own food and make our own clothes, secede from King County and cut ourselves off from the progressive world.

    So, of course, in the 21st century where the entire contents of the library can fit on computer memory the size of a quarter, Vashon wants to make the library bigger. Go in it any time of the day and it's almost empty. Why does it need to be bigger?

    Vashon voted down a school bond this year that would provide funds to rebuild a dilapidated school on the island. So clearly Vashon doesn't care about education, information, books, computers or any of those new-fangled ideas that will benefit our children and our community. But it wants to spend millions to build a new library. Why? Because the bond was approved years ago and that can't be changed because Vashon fears change.


    Posted Thu, May 7, 1:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    Some links to the referenced sources would be helpful.


    Posted Thu, May 7, 2:03 p.m. Inappropriate

    We don't want a new library, fredf. We want the one that's there now, right where it is. And we don't fear change. We reserve the right to be discriminating about it. Most of us *want* the K2 site developed. We just don't want the library there. So please quit making stuff up.


    Posted Fri, May 8, 9 p.m. Inappropriate

    Great article, Dan! BTW, 28% return on a survey of this type is almost three times what most experts consider statistically valid.


    Posted Sun, May 10, 9:03 p.m. Inappropriate

    I of course do not live there and my library wont move but the key thing I see is Constantine who ever he or she is getting something passed with out following regular community planing rules. That would be the main problem with our system that some one is always able to skip the agreed rules and do something that has not been processed properly. You can bet your bottom dollar that if it was Constantine's puppy being moved with out proper rules they would gripe loudly.

    Posted Wed, May 13, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

    Why would Vashon want to move its library from an excellent central location in a park to a site outside of town without those advantages? It feels like Vashon is talking but KCLS isn't listening. It shouldn't be this hard to resolve this issue.

    Thanks for the article. Please keep writing about this until KCLS starts acting accountable to its patrons.


    Posted Sat, May 16, 6:07 a.m. Inappropriate

    fredf says: "Go in it any time of the day and it's almost empty. Why does it need to be bigger?" I don't know what horse fred is riding in this controversy but that statement is simply false, as anyone looking for a little computer time or sometimes even a chair on an average weekday late afternoon, or on Saturday, can testify. Whatever your feelings about how to resolve this difficult issue, walking into the well-used, friendly Vashon library will instantly renew your belief in the importance of these institutions.

    There is some truth to fred's comment that a large share of Vashon residents fear change. Vashon remains, to a large extent, a community trying to hold on its existing character -- a semi-rural island with just enough forest and farm land to recall what life was like in a gentler time. If we wanted condos, we'd live on Bainbridge.

    This story is a masterful piece of reporting. Disclosure: I know Dan Chasen as a fellow islander and through his work on Crosscut. That said, even a casual reader will note that this story gives nearly every party its due. (I would have liked to have read Dow Constantine's reply to his support of the K-2 developers but that's a quibble.) There's been a lot of talk lately about what the public loses when newspapers shut down. This story could be Exhibit A in that dialog. Fortunately, Dan Chasen has an online source to publish his reporting and we should all be grateful.

    Posted Tue, Aug 25, 9:59 a.m. Inappropriate

    I didn't know anyone could read over there

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