Deer, homes and homeless dominate candidate forum

Posted 7/8/21

From troublesome deer to scant housing and crumbling streets, the candidates for Port Townsend City Council Position 5 traded opinions during a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of …

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Deer, homes and homeless dominate candidate forum

Janette Force, moderator of the LWV and AAUW candidates forum for Port Townsend City Council candidates for Position 5 is shown at top; on the bottom row, candidates Tyler Myles Vega, Libby Urner Wennstrom and Sky Hardesty-Thompson.
Janette Force, moderator of the LWV and AAUW candidates forum for Port Townsend City Council candidates for Position 5 is shown at top; on the bottom row, candidates Tyler Myles Vega, Libby Urner Wennstrom and Sky Hardesty-Thompson.
Photo from Zoom

From troublesome deer to scant housing and crumbling streets, the candidates for Port Townsend City Council Position 5 traded opinions during a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Jefferson County last week.

Candidates Tyler Myles Vega, Libby Urner Wennstrom and Sky Hardesty-Thompson each took turns addressing questions during the Zoom-hosted forum Thursday, July 1. The three will square off in the upcoming Aug. 3 Primary Election as they jockey for the seat of outgoing Councilmember Pamela Adams.

At the top of the forum, each candidate was given two minutes to offer up their opening statements.

Vega was born and raised in Seattle and in his opening statement noted that he’d previously run for political office in 2004 and formed a political party after an unsuccessful bid as a Green Party candidate.

“I was the cofounder of the Inter-dependence Party,” Vega said. “That didn’t last very long; I realized pretty early on that there wasn’t the real people power to do anything.”

After his initial foray into the political realm, Vega said he later gave away all of his possessions in order to become a “hardcore activist.”

“I would go into direct action; I would be a tree-sitter, I wouldn’t come back to politics until 2016 and this whole kind of so-called Bernie Sanders revolution,” Vega said. “That’s where the current era begins in politics for me.”

Vega said he was interested in addressing affordable housing and disaster preparedness in Port Townsend.

In her opening remarks, Wennstrom pointed to her years of community leadership in Port Townsend.

“I’ve got the skills and experience to focus on the issues we’re facing to craft practical solutions and to do the often-tedious work of actually getting things done,” Wennstrom said.

“I’m the person who shows up, makes a workable plan and leads a team that turns that plan into a reality,” she said.

Wennstrom said she has lived and worked for 23 years in Port Townsend where she has served as the director of the local farmers market, a volunteer coordinator for the Wooden Boat Festival, and as a reporter for the Port Townsend Leader.

“I’m organized, dependable and able to get things done,” Wennstrom said. “Democracy can be difficult, slow and sometimes frustrating. I’m ready to put in the time to make informed, thoughtful decisions for our city.”

Hardesty-Thompson said he originally came to Port Townsend to heal after owning businesses on the other side of the Puget Sound.

“I moved here after some medical issues. Prior to that I lived in Federal Way for most of my life,” Hardesty-Thompson said.

“I owned and operated three successful businesses and after that and the medical issues, I chose to move to Port Townsend to heal. It felt like it was a great place to come and do that.”

Shortly after arriving in town, he found himself volunteering to help another local woman.

“She was dying of cancer. I volunteered as her caregiver, pretty much 24/7 for 11 months until she passed away.”

Hardesty-Thompson said Port Townsend’s housing crisis and addressing the stalled Cherry Street Project were high priorities for him as a prospective candidate.

“I want to improve the housing situation for low-income people, people who are working average jobs, people who haven’t moved here to retire,” he continued. “I’m also running because I would like to help with the homeless issue and I find that the homeless are being marginalized.”

Deer running amok

“Recent months have seen an increase in aggressive behavior by deer in Port Townsend,” moderator Janette Force said to the candidates. “What do you think should be done by the city council regarding the resident deer population?”

Wennstrom said she anticipated such a question.

“I knew this one was going to come up,” she began. “Fundamentally it’s a wildlife management issue. I personally know two people who’ve ended up having to go to the ER because of deer encounters.”

Wennstrom said she would like to see the city work conduct outreach to urge residents against behavior that may result in aggressive animals.

“If I were on council, I would be encouraging the city to be partnering more with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. That’s both in education and outreach; letting the public know why hand-feeding deer may lead to more wildlife interactions that aren’t ideal.”

Wennstrom added that the issue of overpopulation within the deer community should be a conversation taken up by the council.

She added that she’d heard anecdotally that other communities were pursuing options on deer control.

“That’s something that I think the city and the county ... could be exploring more,” she said. “They’re cute, they belong here, they’re native. I don’t think we’re going to reintroduce wolves to Uptown, so we’re going to have to come up a way to live together more safely.”

Hardesty-Thompson said he’d given much thought to aggressive deer in Port Townsend.

“I’ve noticed the deer overpopulation — I guess you could say — for years now,” he said. “I agree with Libby that some coordination with Fish and Wildlife needs to be done.”

Hardesty-Thompson suggested a lack of natural predators in the area may have contributed to the outsized population.

“I know that we’ve had coyotes. When I first moved here I saw more coyotes and less deer. So maybe coyotes were helping balance that out. I don’t know what was being done about the coyotes, I know the coyotes are bothersome to a lot of residents because they attack and kill small pets and are a nuisance themselves.”

He added that though the option may be an uncomfortable one, perhaps a cull may be in order for the deer population in town.

“I don’t know if that’s the answer. I’m a vegetarian, I would hate to see that, but I’m hearing about people finding ticks on their dogs and I’ve never heard of anybody finding a tick anywhere in western Washington.”

Vega called the deer issue a “tough problem” and also praised Wennstrom for her wolf joke.

“We’re the invasive species, we’re the ones causing the problem, not the deer,” he said. “I get the idea of culling — like when you have rats in your basement, usually you kill them — but I want to come from a place ... of acknowledging that we are the ones that have taken away this habitat.”

Vega suggested that it is not the deer population that should be shaped by the humans, but perhaps the humans who should adapt themselves.

“I know that it’s a hard sell to ask my partner’s mother to walk around with a stick to defend herself against the deer, but that’s better than killing the deer,” he said. “We’re staring down the barrel of the apocalypse at this point and the wildlife and nature are the only answer we have.”    

Vega said if he were elected to council he would approach the issue of handling the aggressive deer population from the perspective that humans are responsible for the present situation, without necessarily ruling out the possibility for control or culling in the future.

“We have to address, first, habitat loss, and everything that comes with it.”

Critical housing crisis

When asked to outline specific actions that city council should do to address homelessness in Port Townsend, Vega suggested rezoning land for higher-density development.

“I think zoning for higher density is a no-brainer,” he said. “I keep on getting pushback on this but I think the golf course really figures into this conversation; we’ve got 60 acres there.”

Vega said whomever is selected to serve in the Position 5 seat will have the chance to vote on how the city moves forward with the Port Townsend Golf Course.

“It’s up for a vote this term. Whoever is elected is going to vote on the future of that,” he continued. “My understanding is the zoning language just changed favorably on this conversation and we have the resources to do something big there.”

Vega suggested changing zoning codes and simplifying permitting for tiny homes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) could also serve to ease some of the pressure currently being placed on the local housing inventory, particularly on the lower-income side of the spectrum.

“I know that everybody agrees that we need more housing and part of the issue is building our way out of it. And part of the issue is filling in the cracks where we’ve already got it.”

Wennstrom said it was not the city’s responsibility to provide housing to the homeless population.

“The city isn’t a housing provider,” she said. “It doesn’t provide housing, but it does set policy, set land use, set zoning.”

She also noted Port Townsend’s high number of unoccupied residences that could otherwise be used to help alleviate the housing crisis.

“We have a lot of existing ADUs in this county that are not currently being rented out,” Wennstrom said. “Is there a way to move the needle and make that more attractive?”

Wennstrom shared Vega’s sentiments that the city should explore options for nonprofits to supplement private owners’ ability to create spaces for low-income and temporary housing.

She also said Port Townsend’s homeless crisis was a symptom of a series of shortages in emergency housing, shelter beds, transitional housing and affordable workforce housing, all of which created a breakdown in a pipeline that could help lead individuals out of homelessness.

“You can’t really talk about homeless housing, crisis, shelter housing, without talking about transitional housing and without talking about workforce housing.”

Without adequate transitional housing and workforce housing, Wennstrom said the homeless cannot move from shelter and emergency housing to more stable arrangements.

Hardesty-Thompson said he thought the city should pursue the removal or adjustment of any policies that could ease the placement of tiny homes and ADUs.

“We have property here where we could easily fit two more homes, but we can’t build them because of red tape,” he said. “I believe a lot of red tape needs to be cut.”

Hardesty-Thompson also pointed to the stalled, multi-million dollar Cherry Street project as a potential answer to the housing crisis.

“I think it needs to be abated and demolished,” he said. “Something needs to be done, the city is paying — I think — $22,000 a month on that bond and it’s just sitting there.”

Hardesty-Thompson called the project a, “big waste of money.”

He said it would be far too costly to repair or remodel the building and instead suggested the city should demolish it and examine the possibility of building affordable housing on the property where it once stood. 

Budget question blunder

The issues of homelessness and affordable housing in the city were the topic of three of the forum’s nine questions posed to the candidates, but it was the matter of the city’s budget that appeared to catch them flat-footed.

When asked to name a city budget expenditure they would like to change, all of the candidates admitted that they were not familiar with the particulars of the most-recently passed budget.

The lack of familiarity prompted a slight jab from the forum’s moderator when posing another question about Port Townsend’s streets.

“We all know now that you haven’t seen the budget, so, not quite sure how you’re going to answer this,” Force said.

Closing remarks

In their closing remarks each of the candidates noted that they appreciated that even though they are in competition with their opponents, they were still working together to address the pressing issues facing the city in the run-up to the primary election.

“We’re in cooperation and we’re solving problems and I want to give a shoutout to Sky and Libby for being at the table,” Vega said.

“We’re solving problems, even though we have some pretty significant differences. And that’s totally fine.”

Wennstrom shared Vegas sentiments and thanked him and Hardesty-Thompson for their collaboration before offering her own prepared closing statement.

“Local politics matter. Having a solid understanding of our unique opportunities and our very real challenges can help us ‘get it right’ when we’re setting city policy,” Wennstrom said. “I chose to raise my family here because I care deeply about this place and now it’s my turn to help do the work of keeping Port Townsend somewhere we all want to live.”

Hardesty-Thompson said he chose not to prepare a closing statement, and instead wanted to “how the event went.”

“Housing for our workers and homelessness in our town and the rampant drug use that I feel a lot of people are unaware of — or is being swept under the rug — are pretty much the main reasons I chose to run,” Hardesty-Thompson said.

“I feel that the council needs a change of how it’s been operating. It needs new people, new ideas and now’s the time for me where I felt that it was time to finally jump in.”    

Ballots for the Primary Election will be mailed July 14 and must be returned by
Aug. 3. Residents who haven’t registered to vote yet may do so by mail or online up until July 26.

In-person voter registration is available at the Jefferson County Courthouse through close of business on Election Day.