by Colleen Smith, Heather Spaulding, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Kathryn Wheeler
At the end of the year, we take a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel impacted our communities.
1. County Council limits vacation rentals
After listening to over three hours of public testimony on May 17, the San Juan County Council unanimously voted on island-specific caps for vacation rentals. Orcas is capped at 211, San Juan at 337, Lopez at 135 and the outer islands at 10. The new limits took effect ten days after the ordinance was adopted.
“I heard San Juan Island loud and clear, and I heard Orcas loud and clear,” council member Cindy Wolf said to her colleagues as they deliberated. Commenters from Orcas Island heavily supported a cap, citing safety issues, water concerns and impacts on affordable housing. San Juan Island commenters cited economic reasons to keep vacation rentals as a viable source of income, many stating they did not see the evidence that short-term rentals have a significant impact, particularly on affordable housing.
The high number of VRs coupled with the fact they are concentrated in Orcas Island’s densest residential neighborhoods led Orcas Islanders to petition the council to put limits on them, Wolf said.
“It isn’t all a money grab,” council member Jamie Stephens, Lopez Island said. “People do this for a variety of reasons,” Stephens explained that he wanted space to increase the number, and 135 provided that space. Stephens also said he felt it was important the ordinance be reviewed in five years. San Juan County Community Development director Dave Williams pointed out that the council could revisit the issue at any time, and Wolf objected to mandating what future council must deal with.
2. Ferry service disruptions
A slew of ferry service interruptions that have seriously impacted residents led to a special meeting between the San Juan County Council and the Ferry Advisory Committee on Oct. 6 at 9 a.m. This past year, there have been more ferry disruptions than any year prior. WSF reported there were 45 cancellations of San Juan Islands route sailings in the span of just two weeks.
Councilmember Cindy Wolf spoke on behalf of concerned residents, stating “These cancellations affect working families, school children, government operations, social services, sheriff operations, and more,” she said. “It impacts our ability to do business as a community when small tradespeople can lose 20% of their income for a week when the interisland [ferry] is canceled.”
The meeting resulted in an agreement between Washington State Ferries, which committed to working with Rep. Lekanoff and SJC Council on better notification strategies for passengers when a delay is foreseen. WSF anticipates that their increased focus on recruitment and employee education will bring relief to the system by the summer of 2023, and fewer cancellations due to staffing shortages. In the long term, they will focus on acquiring new boats with increased funding from the state.
If things stay on track, the first of five new boats should arrive in 2027, but the project is already five years behind schedule, and all new boats will simply replace the many senior (over the age of 50 years old) ships, adding no actual increase in ships, but perhaps resulting in fewer mechanical issues that cause delays.
As some of the most frequent passengers, island students and teachers often face the brunt of the issues caused by unpredictable ferry schedules. “If the boats don’t leave on time we miss the first half hour of class or more depending on how late it is,” said Julia van Dongen, an Orcas resident who has attended Spring Street for the last four years.
While WSF has agreed to work more closely with the San Juan County Council, real solutions to this issue remain far off.
3. Sea plane crashes, no survivors
On Sept. 26, the U.S. Navy recovered the wreckage of the DHC-3 Turbine Otter seaplane that crashed on Sept. 4 off Whidbey Island, killing all nine passengers and the pilot. The accident occurred during the pilot’s second trip of the day.
A review of Federal Aviation Administration tracking data revealed that the flight departed from Friday Harbor Seaplane Base at around 2:50 p.m. with a destination of Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Washington.
Witnesses near the accident site reported that the airplane was in level flight before it entered a slight climb, then pitched down in a near-vertical descent. The airplane continued in a nose dive until it hit the water in Mutiny Bay. Several witnesses described the airplane as “spinning,” “rotating,” or “spiraling” during portions of the steep descent.
Recent reports by the National Transportation Safety Board, which has been investigating the crash since it occurred, stated that “it appeared [that] a critical part that moved the plane’s horizontal tail stabilizer came apart,” as reported by The Seattle Times.
This may have been because a clamp nut had unthreaded, or the lock ring was improperly installed. The failure of the tail stabilizer could have allowed a loss of control over the airplane. The crash came during peak tourism season when seaplanes see a large deal of activity and many rely on them to safely reach the islands.
The crash was unsettling to many, who were shocked by the tragedy and questioned their own use of the plane service going forward. Among the victims were a civil rights activist, a business owner, a lawyer, an engineer and the founder of a winery and his family.
4. Devastating fire in Friday Harbor
Friday Harbor lost three historical buildings in the downtown core on April 7, and several businesses were destroyed or damaged.
The incident was phoned in at 3:43 a.m. that morning by a passing tow truck driver. By 8 a.m., flames appeared to die down in the upper stories of the buildings, only to reemerge. The fire was serious enough that some Orcas Fire, Lopez and Skagit personnel were requested to assist. Washington State Ferry Service also dispatched a ferry for the transport of emergency personnel and apparatus. Early estimates by Fire officials were approximately 10 million dollars in losses. Fortunately, nobody was injured and no lives were lost. Islanders jumped into action helping emergency responders as they battled the fire, many wept at the sight of such integral businesses and structures being engulfed in flame.
As the fire abated and the smoke cleared, islanders reflected on the memories the buildings held, and jumped into action to raise funds for the businesses after their devastating losses.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was brought in to investigate the source of the fire. After only a matter of days, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and ATF announced that the cause of the fire was determined to be arson. A 33-year-old Friday Harbor man, Dwight C. Henline, was arrested on April 16 in Langley, Washington. He was transferred from Island County to San Juan County, where he appeared in Superior Court on April 20. That case was dismissed so that federal charges could be brought against him. The federal case is being heard in the United States District Court of Western Washington. Henline has pleaded not guilty. A trial was set to be held in November but was postponed to June 20, 2023.
5. County adds Environmental Stewardship Department
In 2021, the San Juan County Council voted unanimously to elevate the Environmental Resources Division to an independent County Department by creating an Environmental Stewardship Department. Kendra Smith was appointed Executive Director of the Department. Several different programs are carried out by the Environmental Stewardship Department, including the new Climate and Sustainability Program, Clean Water Project, and Solid Waste, Marine Resources, and Cultural Resources. Each program has its own advisory committee to help guide the work.
Currently, the Climate and Sustainability Program is focusing on two primary tasks, the Tourism Management Plan and the Climate Action Plan.
The Tourism Management Plan has already held several community meetings to get feedback from islanders. In the end, the plan will lay out the impacts and opportunities that tourism presents in San Juan County and provide a comprehensive roadmap for sustaining our community and resource needs, now and in the future.
The Climate Action Planning Process began in January 2022 with the formation of the advisory committee and a draft timeline. Work is ongoing with an estimated plan implementation date of the summer of 2023.
The goal is to use a science-based strategic framework for mitigating and adapting to climate impacts. It will include goals, targets, and prioritized strategies and identify required resources and funding.
Meanwhile, the Solid Waste Program has been working to streamline the county’s waste system, and the rest of the Environmental Stewardship Department staff have been busy with an array of new projects to protect the island’s environment.