Evan Carnes, senior project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had one message Wednesday for the Lewis County leaders who turned out for an outreach meeting with Corps leadership: Call me.

“The Corps has a stigma about it: We’re really hard to get ahold of,” Carnes said. “I have a phone, I have an email and you’re welcome to use them.”

Leaders from the Corps’ Seattle District have been holding outreach meetings throughout the region, in part to address long-simmering frustrations  with permit wait times and communication issues. Carnes told Lewis County attendees that he didn’t want them to feel like they were dealing with a faceless bureaucracy.

“If you have a question or you’re not sure, you should call me,” he said. “My job is not to write as many permits as I can. I want to help people.”

The Corps handles environmental permits under a swath of different federal laws, such as a the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act. Southwest Washington leaders have long complained that the agency’s Seattle District is especially slow at processing applications, and communication is poor. 

With frustration mounting, congressional leaders have threatened to redraw Southwest Washington into the Portland, Oregon District, which has much shorter wait times. Dena Horton, Sen. Maria Cantwell’s Southwest Washington outreach director, told Lewis County officials earlier this month that Seattle Corps leaders have been told legislative options are on the table if conditions don’t improve.

Horton was at the meeting Wednesday, along with staffers for Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground. Commissioner Edna Fund was in attendance as well, as were leaders from the cities of Centralia and Chehalis. 

“It was very good to have that outreach,” Fund said following the meeting. “People are always a bit critical of the Corps, so it was really nice to have an outreach person talking about giving their phone number and their email.”

In all, more than 30 local officials, business and property owners attended the Wednesday meeting, held at the Centralia Timberland Library. Though many have been outspoken skeptics of the agency, the tone remained cordial — even lighthearted at times — as Carnes expressed his desire to be as accessible and helpful as possible. 

“The questions were very appropriate. They were very much in line with what the local development goals are,” said Bob Thomas, regulatory branch section chief for the Corps. “It’s demystifying the permitting process. It can be pretty bewildering to people …. A key part of that is us being accessible.”

Carnes, who led the meeting, spent several hours giving an overview of the agency’s role, which laws guide its permitting decisions and how to navigate the system. His presentation covered things such as which physical features define a wetland, which activities are eligible for permit exemptions and what kind of drawings are most helpful on applications. 

After a long time deep in the bureaucratic weeds, he said he hoped the guidelines had been helpful — but that people should still reach out. 

“Having that engagement and providing a person for people to call or reach out to is more important than the technical aspects of this presentation,” he said. 

During the meeting, Carnes also praised the Lewis County Public Works Department, which has had more permits issued than any other entity in the area, and has proven adept at navigating the application process. Fund said that praise spoke well of the work of Betsy Dillin, the department’s senior utilities and surface water engineer.

In response to another question, Carnes said the Seattle District of the Corps was working on implementing a paperless submission process for applications, moving to an online permit system. Many in attendance welcomed that development. 

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