Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Land Use, Guns and Forks

I found myself this week once again in a land-use meeting. It dawned on me that I have been sitting in meetings like this for more than 40 years.

forkschambercommerceWhile shouting, snark and smackdowns are standard fare for land-use meetings, few reached the tension level of the very first first land-use meeting I attended.

It occurred in the early 1970s in Forks, Washington, which later achieved fame as the fictional center of the Twilight movies. The occasion was an exploratory public hearing on the concept of zoning.

In those days, places like Forks didn’t have zoning, and Forks residents didn’t exactly appear eager to have any if it meant some level of government control over what they did on their land. The word “communist” would come up frequently in testimony and chants from the crowd.

But that wasn’t what was remarkable about the hearing. What was remarkable was that everyone in the room – with the exception of the three Clallam County commissioners, their clerk and me – were openly carrying firearms. All kinds of firearms from pistols to shotguns to rifles. Assault rifles were relatively new back then, but there may have been one or two of those in the room, too.

Sheriff Harley Bishop stood at the door of the hearing room and politely asked attendees to surrender their weapons before entering. He asked politely because he was an elected official and these were his law-biding constituents. As I watched, every attendee declined, some not so politely. The hearing room looked and smelled like a gun show.

Clallam County is located on the north end of the Olympic Peninsula. It extends from Sequim, the Peninsula’s Sun Belt on the east, to the Pacific Ocean and the Makah Indian Reservation on the west. Port Angeles, with a population of less than 20,000, is the county’s big city.

Elwha dam removalHarry Lydiard, a lanky, outgoing and idealistic veterinarian who represented the Port Angeles area on the commission and happened to be a Sierra Club member, was the driving force behind the zoning plan. Lydiard, a lifelong Republican and an Oregon State University graduate, was an engaging guy. I can recall walking with him – jogging actually – along the banks of the Elwha River, listening to his explanation of why a dam needed to be removed. Years later, it was.

Tom Mansfield, the chain-smoking former logging operator from Forks who chaired the commission, agreed to hold hearings and cagily suggested the first one be held in his hometown.

What a set up. Holding the first hearing on zoning in Forks was like holding a gun control rally at a pistol range.

When I wasn’t nervously glancing at all the guns in the hearing room, I couldn’t help noticing Mansfield’s sly smile as he watched his constituents enter the hearing room armed to the teeth.

Mansfield warned Lydiard, but Harry said he thought he could convince ’em if he just got the chance. Harry looked a little less than confident as he surveyed the assembled armed force in front of him.

At the hearing, Lydiard explained that zoning was good for landowners because it protected them against unwanted, value-lowering adjacent uses, like a hog slaughtering house in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

There were a few nods, but the majority of the crowd wasn’t having any of it. In their minds, zoning was the equivalent of a malevolent government creeping into their private lives, stealing their privacy and telling them they couldn’t paint their house purple or plop abandoned cars on their lawns.

As young reporters do, I took another job and moved away before any zoning plan was voted on in Clallam County. Frankly, I had forgotten about the issue and episode in Forks until I found my thoughts wandering in last week’s land-use hearing.

That night in Forks is hard to forget. As I drove home after the hearing past a moonlit Crescent Lake, I could still feel the chill of a room bristling with firepower and personal anger. On many occasions since then, I’ve seen similar angry faces, but never brandishing arms.

Fortunately, no one was shot that fateful night in Forks – intentionally or accidentally. Lydiard and I didn’t hang around to tempt fate.

When Lydiard died at age 84 in 2007, he was honored as Clallam County’s most revered conservationist, responsible for preserving hundreds of acres of timberland, many of them crucial to protecting watersheds.

Forks Mayor Nedra Reed said of Lydiard, “He carried his philosophy from vet practice of helping people into his service to the county.”

If Harry couldn’t convince ’em, he was determined to show ’em.

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