Here at the Islands’ Weekly, we like to take a look back at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. We chose the top stories we feel impacted our communities.
#1 Solutions rev up as orca population dwindles
In the summer of 2018, islanders watched as an orca mother carried her dead calf for 17 days, then a sick, adolescent whale struggled to survive, went missing and was presumed dead. By September, the Southern resident orca population had reached a 30-year low, forcing government officials to expedite solutions to restore the endangered species’ numbers.
In December, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee proposed $1 billion in the next biennium’s budget to protect the orcas. Suggestions came from a task force advising the governor on actions. They ranged from the popular — increase Chinook salmon populations — to the controversial — temporarily suspend viewing the Southern residents by boats. In 2019, orca supporters will look for him and the Legislature to approve such suggestions.
In the meantime, advocates have relied on volunteer efforts.
Last spring, state fish and wildlife managers called for a voluntary “no-go” zone along San Juan’s west side. In summer 2018, San Juan County staff also dispensed warning flags to be voluntarily raised by those on land or vessels to signify when orcas are nearby, alerting others to slow down or possibly change course.
The county government helped further by increasing fees to provide cleaner water for both the local people and marine life, including orcas. Starting in 2019, county landowners will pay more to clean precipitation before it reaches the ocean or groundwater. The name of the charge was changed from “stormwater utility” to “clean water utility,” as it now pays to both clean water, as well as aid marine life including increasing fish spawning and passages. County staff says it is the lowest of such fees in the state.
#2 Contentious San Juan County election
San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord was re-elected for his sixth consecutive term against his opponent Nick Power, a local attorney, by about 63 percent of the votes. Gaylord initially won the seat in 1994.
The hotly contested race was fueled by a complex criminal case. A jury found an Orcas High School teacher guilty of misconduct with a student, but then it was discovered that the student had an alleged sexual relationship with the case’s lead detective Stephen Parker. The original misconduct case was thrown out and the teacher, represented by Power, threatened to sue the county for $1 million in damages for violating the teacher’s constitutional rights by not giving him a fair trial. An independent investigation conducted by Skagit County could not prove Parker had sex with the victim but found he showed disrespectful conduct toward her, used aliases to hide their communications with one another and told her details of other cases.
After announcing his candidacy for prosecuting attorney, Power tried to petition “citizen charges” against Parker. Power attempted to show that because the prosecutor’s office failed to charge Parker with a crime, it was his duty to get justice. The San Juan County District Court judge rejected the petition and stated there was no wrongdoing on behalf of the prosecutor’s office. The case went to San Juan County Superior Court, where the motion was also denied.
Gaylord has maintained that he sent the case to Skagit County because it was a conflict of interest for him to try the case in San Juan County. Skagit declined to press charges against Parker.
That spring, Power filed a motion against San Juan County stating they infringed his First Amendment rights by enforcing a code limiting the posting of political signage except for 45 days within an election. Power claimed the ordinance helped Gaylord win his elected position over the last 15 years because it limited opponents’ campaign signs. The county maintained it never enforced the ordinance. Sparks flew when county auditor Milene F. Henley wrote a guest column calling the ordinance a guideline rather than a rule. Power fired back with a lawsuit claiming that her column admitted that the county had an unconstitutional code in its books.
A San Juan County Superior Court ruling stated the county could not enforce sign regulations. The ordinance was removed by mid-summer.
Power’s lawsuit — seeking a retraction of Henley’s column — went to Federal District Court where the request was denied.
By August, attorneys representing Power and the county mutually agreed to dismiss the case.
#3 Shaw Island murder mystery
Eric A. Kulp, 45, received almost 16 years in prison for the murder of his wife Abigail Finney, 38. He was sentenced on Sept. 17. When he is released, the department of corrections staff will supervise him for three years.
Finney was missing for almost four months before her body was located in a minivan last April on the Shaw Island property she shared with her husband. Kulp’s whereabouts were unknown when the body was found, but eight days later, deputies detained him after a standoff in Skagit County. He stabbed himself repeatedly in the abdomen and neck before being apprehended.
According to court documents, Kulp has previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and involuntarily committed several times.
Investigators determined that Finney died on the evening of Nov. 22, 2017, or the following morning. The autopsy could not determine the cause of death because her body was too decomposed, but the investigation indicated that Finney was murdered.
Kulp pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree murder on Aug. 3, as part of a plea agreement, which dropped an unlawful imprisonment charge. In exchange for the plea, prosecutors requested the sentence he received.
Kulp did not provide a confession, but at the Aug. 3 hearing, he presented a statement that read “On or between Nov. 22-23, 2017. … I did assault and thereby cause the death of Abigail Jane Finney.” Court documents state that Kulp understands there are “unanswered questions” about the case but it is “intensely painful and disturbing” for him to discuss the details.
#4 Paul Allen
Microsoft co-founder and serial philanthropist Paul Allen died in mid-October when cancer that he had successfully beaten twice returned. He was 65.
Allen co-founded the multinational technology giant Microsoft with childhood friend Bill Gates in 1975. According to Forbes, he left the company when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1983. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009.
Allen owned a 387-acre property on Lopez Island’s Sperry Peninsula for which he paid $8 million in 1996.
In the islands, Allen donated $157,000 to the Children’s House, the Lopez Community Land Trust, OPAL Community Land Trust and Lopez Center. He also donated to Orcas Island’s Four Winds * Westward Ho in 1997. According to Forbes, he donated more than $2 billion in his lifetime.
Another year has ended on the pastoral island of San Juan, and with it, came reports from the somber to the heartening. In 2018, islanders saw three high-profile crimes solved, including a local murder, and faced the looming extinction of the area’s resident orca whales, the tipping point of local affordable housing and a contentious island election.
#5 Affordable housing solutions
In 2017, a county report found that most islanders cannot afford to buy nearly 80 percent of the houses in the county, and only 16 percent of the county consists of renter-occupied homes, compared to 34 percent of the state.
Organizations like the Lopez Community Land Trust help islanders find affordable housing, but this year the county government also brought solutions to fix the problem.
Voters approved a Real Estate Excise Tax in November ballots after the county council approved putting it before voters.
The tax is expected to generate roughly $15 million in the next 12 years to maintain or build local housing for low- or middle-income residents, as well as those with disabilities.
Starting in late December, a 0.5 percent tax will be added to appraisals, so a home priced at $500,000 will incur a REET of $2,500 and the seller will pay $25.
San Juan County staff is also selling land on Lopez Island for long-term permanent rentals and purchasing property on San Juan Island for an affordable housing project.
Additionally, the county and San Juan Family Resource Center teamed up to launch a pilot home share program, matching those in need of housing to live with seniors in need of care.