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Orcas hot topics discussed at council meeting

The future of solid waste now that the Exchange has gone up in flames. Progress on the Mt. Baker Road project. The newest information on the OPALCO Broadband Initiative.

These were some of the hot items on the agenda for the Orcas community at the San Juan County Council’s special meeting on Orcas, Feb. 12, at the Eastsound Fire Station.

“When we are traveling to other islands we try to bring up topics that are close to home,” said Councilman Jamie Stephens, District 3.

Orcas Recycling Services, which will now be known as the Exchange, is slated to officially take over Orcas solid waste and recycling operations on April 30. The Exchange building burned to the ground on  Feb. 9 after an accidental fire.

Stephens asked if the fire would affect the Exchange moving forward with taking over the transfer station.

Mark De Tray, executive director of the Exchange, said they are ready to move forward and working on a recovery strategy.

Errol Speed, a board member and vice-chairman of the Exchange, told the council about the huge, upwelling of support from the community in the wake of the fire in the form of labor, material and ideas.

He said the board is considering options for a temporary structure for the Exchange. The fire did not damage the solid waste facility.

De Tray said that the destruction of the Exchange will allow them to re-build a more formal structure.

Public Works Director Frank Mulcahy said that the county will help the Exchange with the transition to ensure new employees are familiar with the transfer station.

“We don’t want to turn the key and walk away,” he said. “There should be a smooth transition  – seamless from the customer’s perspective.”

Mulcahy also discussed the upcoming Mt. Baker Road project, which includes road safety improvements, wetland restoration and construction of a pedestrian trail.

The project widens Mt. Baker Road from 20 feet to 30 feet from the intersection with North Beach Road to the intersection with Terrill Beach Road. There will be two 11-foot lanes with four-foot shoulders.

Construction by Orcas Excavation will begin April 1 and will last for three to four months, according to Mulcahy. To get updates on this project and other road construction, visit, http://sanjuanco.com/publicworks/pw_index.aspx and click on the “sign-up for email” at the bottom left corner of the page.

Later in the afternoon, the council heard from Chris Thomerson and  Foster Hildreth, of OPALCO, about the Broadband Initiative.

Thomerson, OPALCO board president, told the council that broadband, high-speed internet, will make for better business, increase education, help with public work and emergency services.

OPALCO has secured the FCC licensed frequency spectrum, but are not moving forward with the initiative until 50 percent or more of OPALCO members sign-up to get on board with bringing broadband to the island.

OPALCO staff estimates that it will cost $34 million to build the system, which will be funded by a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service.

Hildreth said that the construction process would last two years.

Subscribers would pay a monthly fee of $15 for building infrastructure and an additional $75 a month for a subscription to cover operating costs.

Members who don’t want broadband can opt out of the charges and not pay anything, but if they decide later that they want to use broadband they will have a penalty fee to get involved.

Thomerson also made it clear that the broadband infrastructure could allow better cell phone service on the island, but that would depend on whether or not providers would want to come to the island.

“It’s out of our control,” Thomerson said. “The infrastructure is basically chum in water for them to get here.”

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