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Top Stories from 2013

Auxiliary volunteer Velma Doty (left) and Cafe Olga owners Bobby Olmsted and Bev Simko watch as Orcas Fire and Rescue crew members work on the Orcas Artworks building on July 19. - Contributed photo/ Bob Shipstad
Auxiliary volunteer Velma Doty (left) and Cafe Olga owners Bobby Olmsted and Bev Simko watch as Orcas Fire and Rescue crew members work on the Orcas Artworks building on July 19.
— image credit: Contributed photo/ Bob Shipstad

#1 CenturyLink week-long outage

Electronic ties that bind the San Juan Islands to the rest of America and the world were disrupted for ten days in November when an underwater fiber-optic cable between Lopez Island and San Juan Island was severed just after 3 a.m. on election day, Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Telephone and internet services, including most cellphones, were unavailable to all - except county offices and some businesses utilizing OPALCO Island Network broadband facilities.

By Thursday, CenturyLink, owner and operator of the high-capacity fiber cable, had located the break in San Juan Channel and had marshaled divers, technicians, a large repair barge with a crane, two tugboats and assorted other crafts and machines to address the break. CenturyLink informed the media and local officials that it was working “around the clock” to restore service.

Failure of 9-1-1 emergency communications was an immediate concern to county public safety officials, who scrambled to alert islanders to the outage and provide patchwork local emergency telephone communications on each island. Use of 9-1-1 service was restored by Monday, Nov. 11; no missed emergencies were reported by EMS or fire departments.

Less than four weeks later, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, the state agency responsible for regulating the telecom industry,  came to Friday Harbor to hold an internet-streamed hearing that criticized CenturyLink for failure to adequately inform island residents and urged the company to provide redundant communications channels, which CenturyLink said was already underway.

The cost: replacing the broken cable, $2 million; business interruption and dislocation, $200,000 or more; fifteen days of service credits granted by CenturyLink, at least $250,000; loss of trust and goodwill, incalculable.

The “silver lining”: support for OPALCO’s proposal to extend its own fiber-based broadband system increased markedly. Just days later, the OPALCO Board of Directors directed that the company speed up fiber deployment throughout the county as an alternative to, or perhaps in cooperation with, CenturyLink and Rock Island Technology Solutions.

#2 Arsonist wreaks havoc in Olga

Three suspicious fires that occurred over the summer raised concern and fear in the Orcas community. The Orcas Artworks and an Olga residential structure were both set ablaze in the early morning hours of July 19. There was also another early morning house fire with explosions in Olga’s Willis Lane neighborhood in June that was classified as arson. Officials have still not confirmed that the fires are related. The incidents are under investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Sheriff’s Office, the San Juan County Fire Marshal’s Office and all three island fire departments.  The Alarm Foundation and the Northwest Insurance Council offered up to $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of any individual or individuals involved in these incidents. There was also a private $5,000 cash reward offered as well under the same conditions. So far no one has been arrested for arson.

Two other fires this year made headlines.  An 85-foot luxury yacht was almost completely destroyed July 10, after flames grabbed hold of a below-deck cabin at the front end of the vessel, which was moored at Roche Harbor Resort marina on San Juan Island. The yacht was estimated to be valued at  $5.4 million making it stand as the largest single-loss in dollar value on San Juan Island.

Just a few months later, a swift moving fire tore through the interior of the Downriggers Restaurant in the early morning hours of Saturday, Aug. 17, leaving the Friday Harbor waterfront eatery in ruins.

A team of investigators late determined that the cause was an electrical problem within a wall near the kitchen area.


#3 Pride flags flown in Eastsound

It all started with a letter to the editor in the Islands’ Sounder in August entitled “Fear is ignorance; anonymity is cowardly.” Written by Michael Rivkin and Jeffri Coleman, it outlined negative feedback that new Eastsound bakery owners David Ellertsen and Lee Horswill received about flying a pride flag in front of their business.

They were told “numerous” but anonymous islanders felt it was inappropriate. The couple was told: “We’re okay that you’re gay, but don’t throw it in our faces.” They were warned it would damage their business.

As a result, they removed the rainbow flag.

The letter attracted the most attention in Sounder online history with more than 100 responses from community members and more than 600 people “liking” the letter on the social networking site Facebook. The Sounder also penned an editorial on the topic entitled “Intolerance should not be tolerated.”

Outraged locals headed directly to Ellertsen and his fiancé Horswill at their bakery to show support. The letter also prompted businesses to unite and take a stand together by raising rainbow flags over Labor Day weekend. The couple printed rainbow bracelets that said “Celebrate Orcas Island” that were distributed around town. The story was covered in “The Stranger” in Seattle.


#4 Sailboat sinks after ferry collision

A 28-foot sailboat sank after it was struck by the Hyak ferry on Sept. 13. The sailboat’s lone occupant, a man in his mid-60s, did not sustain major injuries. A Fish and Wildlife boat towed the sailboat away, but it later sank in 250 feet of water.

The accident forced the cancellation of the next boat and was a disturbing sight for many people on board the ferry watching the accident occur.

Washington State Ferries removed the captain and the 2nd mate from duty onboard the Hyak and placed the two on administrative assignment.

In November, Washington State Ferries convened a board of inquiry to investigate the collision. They concluded that human error was responsible for the accident.

#5 Where are the whales?

Curiosity had turned into a growing sense of unease by mid-July.

As a record-low number of sightings of Southern Resident killer whales off the west side of San Juan Island, in the waters of Haro Strait, stretched into its fourth month, even those who watch them most couldn’t help but to ask: “Where are the whales?”

The spring and early summer of 2013 now stand as the lowest of low-water marks in more than 20 years of tracking the Southern residents’ in Haro Strait -- and dramatically so. Between April and late July, a member of J, K or L pods had been sighted on any one of only 17 days, less than half the average for that period and 12 days fewer than the previous low.

Some blamed a dismal return of Chinook salmon to the Fraser River. And while sightings became more frequent in late summer and even more so in the fall, the slow start foreshadowed dispiriting news to come. Four members of the endangered population remain missing, including an 80-year-old female, J-8, and are believed dead.

The loss of eight orcas over the past three years, the population now totals 80 animals, prompted some to call for greater protections in the federally managed recovery plan that’s supposed to help bring the population back from the edge of extinction.

#6 Man pleads guilty to rape

A 21-year-old Kirkland man faces up to five years in prison on two separate sex crimes after admitting that he raped two teenage girls in the haze of a late-night alcohol-fueled party in Eastsound a year ago in mid-October.

On Nov. 18, Peter John Anderson pleaded guilty in San Juan County Superior Court to two counts of third-degree rape, a Class C felony. Anderson, who will be required to register as a sex offender as a result of the conviction, is slated to be sentenced on Feb. 28.

According to court documents, prosecutors accused Anderson of forcing himself upon two 15-year-old girls and of sexually assaulting each at separate times on the same night. In addition to being under the age of consent, both girls reportedly were incapacitated by a combination of alcohol and marijuana at the time each was sexually assaulted. Anderson, then 20 years old, was four years older than both victims at the time.

It is not the first time the 21-year-old has been prosecuted in local court for an alleged sex crime. In June 2010, Anderson, then 18, was charged with second-degree rape for an alleged sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl. The case was dismissed six months later after the girl, reportedly fearful of the potential of confrontational court proceedings, opted against taking the witness stand to testify at trial.

#7 ORS takes over; Exchange burns down

On Feb. 9, Orcas Island’s beloved recycle and re-use center dubbed “The Exchange” burned to the ground in a five-hour blaze. The fire came after the Exchange, a popular re-use facility, made headlines with its grassroots movement to take local control of solid waste on the island.

Orcas Recycling Services, which runs the Exchange, received a unanimous vote from the San Juan County Council in November to be the sole operator of the Orcas Island transfer, recycling and reuse facility starting March 31.

After the fire, islanders expressed their reaction to the fire at the Exchange with words like – “historic tragedy,” “very sad,” and “the Orcas community will mourn this passing and stand to support the metamorphosis of the spirit of the Exchange.”

Officials deemed the fire accidental.

ORS, who officially opened fro business on Sept. 6,  is planning on building a re-use facility on the site, but first expects to complete a site master plan.  ORS has not yet proposed a schedule for construction of the re-use facility.

#8 I-5 Skagit bridge collapses

On May 23, the northern section of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon collapsed. The incident was caused when a southbound Mullen Trucking Co. truck hauling a large housing for mining equipment clipped one or more load-bearing supporting struts as it crossed the bridge. The over-height truck was accompanied by a pilot car with a vertical measuring pole which, according to witnesses, also struck the bridge in front of the truck following behind.

Three people were rescued from two vehicles that plunged into the water along with the bridge. All three were unharmed and released from local hospitals after being checked out and warmed up. A temporary bridge was erected in June 19 allowing thru traffic on I-5.

Local business owners in the Skagit Valley and surrounding areas, including the San Juans, were concerned that the bridge collapse would negatively affect business. In response to this concern,  $150,000 was released from the strategic reserve account to support economies in impacted areas. Businesses impacted by the collapse were encouraged to report economic losses to county emergency management officials.

#9 Three-person council elected

San Juan County’s legislative branch and executive branch began a new chapter on April 23.

Voters backed the reelection bids of three county council incumbents in the first county-wide election in seven years.

Bob Jarman beat Lovel Pratt to represent District 1, Rick Hughes won for District 2 against Lisa Byers and Jamie Stephens beat Brian McClerren for District 3.

The new three-person council was enacted after county charter changes were approved by voters in November. It reduced the size of the council from six elected officials to three, redrew the council legislative districts from six to three, and instituted county-wide elections for each of those three newly created council positions.

Changes to the charter also turned the three council positions into full-time jobs, eliminated the position of county administrator, and delivered into the hands of the council the responsibility for both legislative duties and day-to-day management of the county. Council members are paid an annual salary of $75,000, plus benefits.

#10 Level III sex offender moves to FH

In the wake of an outpouring of opposition, neighborhood protests and a series of tense town hall meetings, San Juan Island got what proved to be a two-year reprieve from being the home of San Juan County’s only Level III sex offender.

That was back in early 2011.

But by February 2013, the state Department of Corrections no longer had authority to tell David Franklin Stewart where he could or could not live. Freed from court-ordered residential oversight, the 60-year-old former Snohomish County resident and convicted child rapist opted to move into the home that he and his wife purchased six years earlier in San Juan Island’s Bridal Trails neighborhood.

As a registered sex offender, Stewart was required to notify the Sheriff’s Department within three days of moving to his San Juan Island home, which he did. He served 7 1/2 years in prison and two years probation for first-degree child rape. Neighbors reported seeing Stewart at his San Juan Island home Feb. 17.

Currently, San Juan County is home to 20 registered sex offenders, 18 of whom, at Level I, are considered low-risk to reoffend. Stewart, who because of his classification is considered at high-risk to reoffend, remains the only Level III sex offender in San Juan County.

Honorable mentions

Airlift NW vs. Island Air

San Juan County residents have been concerned and confused by the emergence of a second emergency transport aircraft.

The Airlift Northwest  helicopter has been serving island residents for many years, but Island Air Ambulance fixed wing arrived on the scene last  year in tandem with the opening of  PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center in 2012.

There are a number of differences in equipment and services available from each program, the primary one being that Airlift Northwest helicopters fly directly to hospitals with landing pads, while fixed-wing planes must land at airports.  The Air Ambulance service results in no out-of-pocket costs to residents of San Juan Island or residents within the taxing district that supports San Juan Island EMS.

Orcas and outer-island residents have wondered if Island Air could put Airlift Northwest out of business, leaving them with much fewer options when it comes to emergency transport.

Shark washes ashore

The waterfront of San Juan Island became a makeshift laboratory when the body of one of the more poorly understood creatures of the deep washed up in Argyle Lagoon June 26. Faculty and students of UW Friday Harbor Labs rushed to the scene to take advantage of a rare chance to poke, prod, examine, dissect and carry back parts of a recently deceased sixgill shark.

Measuring nearly 12 feet in length, the carcass of the female, estimated at 25-50 years of age, was nearly in tact.

Named for its distinctive feature, all other sharks have five, sixgills are slow-moving predators typically found in the outer ocean and in waters of up to 3,000 feet deep. While little is known of their behaviors, due to the depth at which they live, the prevailing theory is that female sixgills venture into the more protected, shallow waters of Puget Sound to give birth.

Labs’ shark specialist Adam Summers said the female was not carrying “pups” and the cause of its death remains unknown.

“It might just be a case of old age,” he said.

San Juans made Nat’l Monument

More than 1,000 acres on dozens of the San Juan islands were designated as National Conservation Lands by President Barack Obama on March 25.

Second Congressional District Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Everett) and U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell  previously introduced legislation in Congress to designate about a thousand acres of land scattered through the San Juans as a National Conservation Area, but the bill stalled in Congress, leading them to ask President Obama to declare the lands as a National Monument by executive order under the Antiquities Act. Both the designation as a national monument and as a NCA drew the support of former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Sally and Tom Reeve of Lopez Island and a dozen other islanders formed and led a citizen action group to promote the project, and several of them accompanied San Juan County Councilman Jamie Stevens to Washington, DC, to advance the cause.

The designation as National Conservation Lands under the Antiquities Act of 1906 means that the lands join 103 other parcels of public land as National Monuments.Although there are millions of acres of National Conservation Lands, National Monument status is “much more significant,” according to Meghan Kissell of the Conservation Lands Foundation.

OPALCO’s new plan

Orcas Power and Light Cooperative unveiled a proposal in Feb. 2013 to build a hybrid fiber-wireless system that would serve 90 percent of San Juan County.

In June, OPALCO scaled back the plan after only 900 members signed up. It closed the sign-up process and returned deposits to those who pre-subscribed.

Its more conservative plan included delivering better broadband, at lower risk, by sharing its infrastructure with all of the other internet service providers.

“This infrastructure provider concept means that we will offer access to our data networking infrastructure through leasing agreements,” said OPALCO representatives at the time.

The need for better county-wide communications became even more apparent after a week-long CenturyLink outage (see page one) this fall.

In late November, in front of a packed room at their regularly scheduled meeting in Friday Harbor, the OPALCO Board issued and approved the following motion:

“Our island communities are suffering economic damage and safety issues caused directly by inadequate phone and Internet infrastructure. Therefore, OPALCO shall accelerate expansion of our local member-owned, robust and reliable high-speed data infrastructure to provide Internet, phone and emergency communication services to our members. Deployment will be supported and funded by OPALCO assets, including equity and rates.”

This acceleration does not mean that OPALCO will necessarily provide broadband services directly to members. Other co-op members and ISPs such as CenturyLink and RockIsland can take advantage of OPALCO’s infrastructure and accelerated expansion to provide broadband services directly to members.

 

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