Islanders clash over Dolphin Bay Road upgrade

To the county, it’s a necessary upgrade to a problematic road.

To a group of islanders, it’s part of a treasured rural landscape that shouldn’t be touched.

Chipsealing Dolphin Bay Road is on the 2016 docket for public works projects. It is slated to happen this spring, but a petition to stop the upgrade has been launched by Orcas residents Amanda Sparks, Andrew Youngren, Ken Katz, Lili Hein, Arthur de Haan and Timothy Blanchard.

For Sparks, the road represents the past, which holds memories like learning to drive on it.

“It was a magical spot for me growing up,” she said. “I learned to drive on that road. For future generations, I want to preserve what it’s like to live on a rural island. Anytime I feel detached from where I am living, I drive down roads like that one to reconnect to my reasons for living in a rural location. And having lived down that road before, I can say that if it’s paved, there would be massive speed issues.”

Organizers of the “Save Dolphin Bay Road” campaign at www.change.org are aiming for 500 signatures. So far, the number is at 370 and includes people from all over the country.  The petition references a Sept. 18, 2015 planning commission statement that asked public works to preserve Dolphin Bay Road: “The additional cost of the maintenance of the gravel section of Dolphin Bay Road is well justified by the preservation of a spectacular example of old island character. Let us not pave over the very sort of place that defines us. Dolphin Bay Road should remain in existing condition until a scenic road plan for this road can be completed and traffic volumes can be documented.”

County councilman Rick Hughes is open to hearing feedback from the Orcas Island community, but says he is not convinced the $265,000 project shouldn’t move forward.

“It will ultimately be a safer road – especially for pedestrians and bike traffic,” he said. “All we are doing is changing the surface with chipseal. We are not making the road wider or adding stripes or fog lines. It’s one of the longest stretches of gravel road in the county and it gets a lot of traffic … I trust public works when they say that this needs to be done.”

Chipsealing is an asphalt emulsion with a layer of rock chips, and those in favor of the upgrade say the surface improvements will eliminate giant potholes, mud and dust.

“Dolphin Bay Road is gravel and it costs the county a lot of money to repair it,” said Hughes.

The annual cost to maintain it in its current condition is $19,160. This price tag includes replenishing (laying down new gravel, regrading shoulders, trimming vegetation) the road every seven years. The yearly cost of maintaining the road once it is chipsealed is $13,468; this includes a chipseal refresher coat every 12 years. Cost recovery will occur after 18 years.

In a Dec. 30, 2015 document about the project, Public Works Director Brian Vincent wrote it has not been proven that drivers are more likely to speed on chipsealed roads.

“Comparison of other converted roads does not support this claim. This road is posted for 25 mph and will remain posted at 25 mph,” he wrote.

According to Vincent, chipsealing the road is in accordance with the San Juan County “Scenic Roads Manual” as it will not change the landscape or alter the road in any way other than hardening it and providing better traction for vehicles.

He also made note of the dust abatement chemicals that are required to maintain a gravel road. The current product being used (lignin sulfonate) is becoming harder to obtain; the replacement product (magnesium chloride) is less environmentally friendly.

Hughes referenced last year’s upgrade to Pinneo Road, another rural road that was deemed in need of a surface conversion to chi-seal, as a success story of gravel to chipseal conversion. He said the public has been happy with the results.

KT Lazlo, who lives on Dolphin Bay Road, is asking islanders to not sign the petition.

“Although I completely adore nostalgia, safety must come first,” she said. “The road already has islanders speeding down it and destroying the road even more. For those of us who live there, we’ve had too many close calls with other vehicles or dump trucks. Night driving is even worse and that’s when the teens and young adults drive more than the elderly. It’s impossible not to swerve to miss the potholes.”

The council approved public works’ gravel road conversion fund but not specific projects that the money will go towards. Hughes says the Dolphin Bay Road conversion will be brought before the council for a decision at its Feb. 2 meeting in Friday Harbor.

“It’s really important for me to hear what the entire community actually wants,” Hughes said. “I encourage people to drive the road and tell me what they think.”