Top stories of 2019

  • Thu Jan 2nd, 2020 10:28am
  • News

County initiates marijuana moratorium

On April 2, council members voted to temporarily enact a six-month pause on permitting marijuana production and processing operations in the county while they worked to establish rules and regulations. The first six-month moratorium lasted until Oct. 2; the extension is in effect until April 2, 2020.

The topic of prohibiting permits to new marijuana grow operations arose from the controversy surrounding three proposed farms on Lopez. The applicant for all three permits through the state’s marijuana licensing board was Laurent Bentitou, who owns waterfront property on Lopez Sound Road and Ceres Garden — a marijuana grow operation — in Bellevue, Washington.

The first proposed tier 3 site was on Ferry Road and is owned by Michael and Vicky Terra of Paducah, Kentucky. This application was withdrawn by the applicant. Then, the second and third requests were made for Bentitou’s waterfront property, a smaller location, but were also for both a tier 3 permit as well as a tier 2.

Tier 1 allows for up to 2,000 square feet of plant production space; tier 2 is between 2,000 and 10,000 square feet; and tier 3 is for 10,000–30,000 square feet.

More than 350 Lopez residents created a coalition named Say No Lopez which spearheaded the movement toward creating county regulations. Opponents of marijuana farms on Lopez cite a high demand for freshwater, adding strain to island groundwater resources, which are already experiencing saltwater intrusion in some locations; the need for a set-back from property lines to buffer sights and smells; intense security measures — such as lights and tall fences — being a nuisance to neighbors; increased need for law enforcement; and decreased property values.

On Dec. 3, Community Development Planning Manager Linda Kuller presented two options to the council for consideration — neither received endorsement by the council. Discussions will continue in January when the county council returns from its winter break.

Former Lopez principal charged with sexual harassment

Eight Lopez residents filed a tort claim and a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission against former Lopez Island High School Principal David Sather in mid-September. They claim that Sather propositioned female staff and said sexually inappropriate things to and about several women, both of whom were employees and parents, among other accusations.

Lara Hruska and Shannon McMinimee work for Cedar Law PLLC, a Seattle-based education firm. The duo represents the six women and two men who approached the firm in June, a month after attempting to resolve their complaints with the school board, McMinimee said.

Sather was accused of propositioning female staff; making sexual gestures; making sexual comments; sending sexually explicit messages, texts or emails; engaging in stalking behavior; rifling through individuals’ personal effects; and preventing the claimants from being able to do their job or advancing in their employment, claimant attorneys wrote in a Sept. 6, press release. McMinimee added that her firm has heard from approximately 60 people about Sather’s alleged misconduct.

In February, Sather applied for a teaching position in the school district and voluntarily vacated his principal position at the end of the school year, according to school board chairperson John Helding. Sather was set to teach high school social studies and history but is now on administrative leave, according to Lopez Island School District’s school board.

Sather is being represented by Tyler Firkins of Van Siclen Stocks Firkins of Auburn, Washington.

Sather began working for the Lopez Island School District in 2013 after he was let go from a school in Mosier, Oregon, where the superintendent said that his leaving was “what is best for Mosier School,” according to a story published in The Dalles Chronicle.

On Lopez, he was assistant principal and was then promoted to principal of the secondary school. In 2017, Sather was investigated by the school district on claims of sexual harassment after he began a relationship with an employee.

In a letter to Lopez Island School parents dated Sept. 3, 2017, the school board wrote it had concluded an investigation into potential sexual harassment by Sather. The board added that it had commissioned a third-party investigation that concluded Sather had partaken in inappropriate “conversation, bantering, and joking.” Because conversations of an explicit nature are not allowed in the workplace per school district policy, the board said that it was taking formal action.

As of Dec. 17, the school’s third-party investigation into the latest allegations against Sather has yet to conclude, McMinimee said, the board hopes to have it completed in January.

Navy expands Growler number at Whidbey Island

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island announced on March 14 that it would be expanding its EA-18G Growler by 36 additional aircraft. That means the number of Growler landing practice “passes” at the small central Whidbey airfield will increase from about 3,000 a year to more than 12,000.

The Navy published the record of decision that invokes the preferred alternative identified in the Environmental Impact Statement without any changes.

In the record of decision, the Navy reported that it carefully considered “the strategic and operational importance of augmenting our nation’s electronic attack capabilities, ensuring quality of pilot training, and balancing the impacts of the proposed action on the human and natural environment.”

The Navy’s record of decision states that an estimated 112,100 Growler operations will occur annually, with 88,000 at the Ault Field base on North Whidbey and 24,100 at Outlying Field Coupeville. Each operation is defined as either a takeoff or landing, so that translates to 12,050 touch-and-go flights at OLF Coupeville.

A Navy press release states that the chosen alternative will impact fewer people overall since North Whidbey has a denser population.

Under the record of decision, the Navy commits to continuing investment in technology to reduce noise.

The decision comes after a lengthy process the Navy followed under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the Navy over the expansion in July. Ferguson argued that the Navy violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by not properly analyzing the impact an increase in Growlers will have on human health, the environment and historic resources.

Ferguson said many “completely reasonable people” felt the Navy ignored the input from the community and other agencies during the environmental impact survey process; it received about 4,000 comments. He pointed out that the state Department of Health provided the Navy with information about the health impacts of noise similar to that of the Growlers, but it was ignored.

Ferguson said the Navy also failed to adequately consider mitigation for the impacts the aircraft will have, which is also required under the law.

Deadly disease annihilates rabbits

Once a common sight in the San Juans, European rabbits were eradicated from the islands this past year. A case of rabbit hemorrhagic disease was confirmed in a domestic rabbit on Orcas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in July.

According to The Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University, RHD is a highly contagious viral disease found in both domestic and wild rabbits. Once the virus strikes a population, most — if not all — rabbits exposed to the virus will die. The first known outbreak was documented in 1984 and spread through Angora rabbits in China imported from Europe. After nine months, the disease killed a total of 14 million domestic rabbits. The virus is not harmful to humans.

In April 2018, 66 rabbits housed at a no-kill animal shelter in Richmond, British Columbia, were euthanized because the disease spread via two feral rabbits that died on the property. A representative of the shelter told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the facility had quarantined the rabbits and ordered the RHD vaccine — which is illegal in the United States — but the vaccine did not arrive in time.

European rabbits were introduced to the islands more than a century ago.

Islands to the north and west of San Juan Island already had established rabbit populations that were suspected to have been introduced by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1800s, said Leo King Couch in a November 1929 publication of the Journal of Mammalogy.

A recap of Washington State Ferries in 2019

Twenty-nineteen was another eventful year for Washington State Ferries, but locally and as a state agency.

The Hyak retired at the end of June, after having been allowed to run one more year by Legislature in 2018. WSF completed its long-range plan in 2019, which stated that the Anacortes-San Juan route will receive a new, internationally-certified vessel in 2028. By that time, most of the vessels currently servicing the islands will be retired along with the Hyak, including the Tillikum, Kaleetan, Yakima and Elwha.

The Elwha received $25 million worth of steelwork on its deck in 2018, only to be pulled again in fall because of additional work needed. WSF announced it did not have the funds to complete the project so it is seeking additional resources.

The Washington Transportation Commission voted to raise the fares for routes by 2.5 percent in October 2019 and again in 2020.

In October, WSF announced plans to contribute to a program named the Whale Report Alert System. This application allows commercial mariners to receive alerts regarding a whale’s real-time location. This allows captains to reduce speed to minimize vessel noise or avoid collision by changing course.

In November, WSF said it received $35 million from a nationwide Volkswagen settlement to support converting three of the fleet’s largest ferries — the Jumbo Mark II — from diesel to hybrid-power. The settlement resolves violations of the federal Clean Air Act after VW installed illegal software that cheated emissions tests on many of its diesel vehicles.

The ferry system is the largest consumer of diesel fuel in the state with over 18 million gallons of diesel burned each year, and the three Jumbo Mark II ferries account for 26 percent of total fuel consumption. This step brings the state ferry system closer to meeting the goals outlined in Gov. Jay Inslee’s Executive Order 18-01, which directs WSF to move toward a zero-emissions fleet.

With the $30 car tab initiative passing in November, and the subsequent litigation against it, many in the ferry-served communities are worried about what this could mean for the organization’s future.

“We do not yet have the answers to how that initiative will affect the ferries budget or transportation budget at a whole,” said Amy Scarton, assistant secretary for the Washington State Ferries Division. She added that as soon as WSF does know, it will report to the public the related effects. “Right now, it’s business as usual.”