By Ken Stern 

From the editor: La Conner's parking problem


February 28, 2024

If the 30 residents at the Feb. 20 community mingle on what was billed as a forum to discuss parking on South First Street had their way, the clear sentiment was to improve safety in the downtown by making it a one-way street south of Washington Street, past the post office. At the start of the evening, La Conner Fire Department Chief Aaron Reinstra was asked to speak on safety from his perspective. He did.

The data he shared showed that on average, a fire department vehicle was called to First Street twice a month over the last two years. But answering the call was increasingly difficult the farther south his volunteers drove, especially in the firetruck. Vehicle traffic and cars parked could effectively slow the responders’ pace to a crawl. Not good if someone had a heart attack, a broken leg or if a building was in flames.

Asked by a forum attendee, Reinstra told the group, “One-way is what I want. … My main goal is one-way on First Street.” Later he endorsed “One-way (traffic flow) with parallel parking works perfectly fine for me.”

His remarks focused the six or seven small groups gathered around tables with maps and photographs. Turns out the issue was not the number of parking spaces on First Street, or the availability of finding a space, or the seasonality of the street jammed with cars. As a 2023 planning project, staff analyzed the situation and learned that La Conner does not have a parking problem, at least not all 12 months of the year and certainly not all seven days of the week.

So, after a half hour of discussion the reports from the table were remarkably uniform and yet nuanced. Yes for one way south on First Street, with parallel parking maybe on one side or maybe both sides, because the fire chief was okay with that. Since the critical building to locals is the post office, maintain two way traffic between Morris and Washington streets and have parking on one side for that long block.

If the citizens gathered at the Second Street Civic Garden Club were located in New England and the gathering was the annual town meeting, the vote would have been to direct La Conner’s staff to plan, schedule and implement what would have been the consensus of the room if the issue had been put to a vote.

But La Conner is on the Pacific coast, not the Atlantic. Google “New England town meeting” and you will come across this entry from GBH, Boston’s premier public broadcasting station: “In Massachusetts, communities with less than 6,000 people effectively act as their own legislators, debating the issues and then casting votes. These are known as open town meetings.”

In La Conner, the very parttime council and mayor turn to the not so extensive town staff, ably assisted by five, again, parttime volunteer, planning commissioners to address – and resolve – the issue. The initial assessment: study, pursue additional questions and focus on getting input from all sides for a complete and comprehensive answer.

So, in time the town’s government is likely to align with the sentiment of residents who showed up when asked for their opinion. At the end of the first quarter of the 21st century this town struggles to answer a 20th-century problem.

A 21st-century problem in need of a – well, world saving – solution was not addressed: how to sustainably maintain a tourist economy and a livable planet by having no vehicles on First Street. How do the visitors get here from Seattle without driving? Or at least not coming the last 10 blocks to downtown? That might take the rest of our lives to solve. Best we get started on it.

Please contact Ajah Eills at Town Hall if you oppose a one-way First Street: [email protected] 360-466-3125.


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