Top stories of 2017 | Part I

  • Wed Dec 27th, 2017 1:30am
  • News

At the end of the year, the Islands’ Sounder takes a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. We choose the top 10 from our most-read online stories and events we feel impacted our communities. See next week for Part II.

#1 Bear roams Orcas Island

A black bear arrived on Orcas over Memorial Day weekend and spent nearly two weeks touring the island.

Residents of Blaine, Ferndale and the Lummi Reservation reported seeing the same bear in mid-May. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers set traps that proved unsuccessful. The bear later swam to Lummi Island, where two more traps were set, but he dodged those as well and officers said he swam to Orcas Island.

“In the 15 years of doing this, I have never had a bear swim to an island,” said WDFW Game Warden Dave Jones.

On Saturday, May 27, it was first seen on Point Lawrence Road heading toward Obstruction Pass. Over the next 10 days, the bear was seen on Olga and North Beach Road, where it was getting into sheds and garbage cans.

During his time on Orcas, the young male bear was referred to by some as the new “mayor of Eastsound” while others warned of the danger in befriending a wild animal. Social media was alight with sightings and tales of the creature.

On June 8, he was found inside a culvert trap that WDFW had set at an address off of Olga Road. He was relocated to Eastern Skagit County near the Marblemount area.

Sheriff Ron Krebs said the bear had not acted aggressively and seemed to have been enjoying a steady diet of bird seed, garbage and barbecue leftovers while on Orcas.

#2 UW opens clinic; hospital district on spring ballot

In January 2017, it was announced that UW Medicine had entered into a contract with the Orcas Medical Foundation after a successful fundraising effort to raise $750,000 to cover transition costs and the projected first-year deficit. UW Medicine assumed control over the Orcas Medical Center on Sept. 11, and it received mix reviews by the community.

From the departure of long-time OMC Doctor Tony Giefer to the required 45-minute new-patient visits to not being able to book an appointment for at least a few weeks out, some members of the community felt they were misled by the promises of UW Medicine.

For the first month and a half the clinic was staffed by rotating practitioners, each only temporary until Dr. Michael D. Alperin assumed his role as a physician and chief of UW Medicine for Orcas Island clinic and Lopez Island clinic (also overseen by UW) in early November. Dr. David Russell and Kirsten Pickard, ARNP, also joined the Orcas clinic, which resulted in the closure of Russell’s existing private practice.

UW Medicine has since explained why it required new patient visits though people had visited that physical clinic before. As it is now under new management, the clinic is required to treat each patient as though they’ve never been there.

When Island Hospital announced in September 2016 that it would be terminating its contract with the Orcas Medical Foundation, a group of concerned citizens united to create the Coalition for Orcas Health Care. The coalition’s goal is to help facilitate the formation of a public hospital district for the island in an effort to salvage primary and urgent care availability for everyone.

Because the Orcas Medical Clinic was operating at a deficit for years, and supported mostly by generous philanthropists, UW Medicine wanted some sort of steady, reliable source of funding to cover the shortfall.

The Coalition for Orcas Health Care gathered enough signatures to secure a measure to create a public hospital district for the April 2018 ballot. The county council voted unanimously to permit the election. At the same time voters will be selecting commissioners to serve on the board, should the public hospital district be accepted. Those commissioners will then be deciding how much of a tax islanders will pay, with a maximum being 75 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value. Beginning on Nov. 30, the coalition started hosting town hall meetings to educate the community on what a public hospital district is and why Orcas Island needs one. The coalition has publicly stated the hospital district is intended to cover primary care on Orcas and would not be limited to funding UW Medicine – Orcas Island Clinic.

#3 Multiple ferry breakdowns disrupt summer commerce

It was the summer of ferry service shortages. In mid-July, two broken ferries prompted an alternate schedule for 13 days. Then in early August, the San Juans’ newest boat, the Samish, had mechanical issues, plunging the routes right back to limited sailings for three days.

The Yakima went out of service on Sunday, July 16. The Kitsap, the only backup vessel for Washington State Ferries’ 22 boats, was also out. As a result, the Anacortes/San Juans route operated on a four-boat “emergency” schedule that lasted until July 29, when the Chelan was brought in from the Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth route.

On Aug. 6, the Samish, which was built in 2015, had a propeller shaft coupling failure, returning the route to just four vessels. On Aug. 9, a repaired Yakima returned and regular sailings resumed.

By the end of the summer the Yakima was out of service from July 16-29; the Samish was out Aug. 6-9; the Elwha was out part of the day on Aug. 16; the Hyak was out for scheduled maintenance on Aug. 30; and the Elwha went out again from Sept. 2–3.

When the Samish was pulled, the sheriff’s office and Orcas Island Fire and Rescue helped with crowd control and congestion at the Orcas terminal. According to OIFR, the hundreds of cars waiting all day created a “road and pedestrian hazard.” On Lopez the ferry line was backed up almost to Odlin County Park, and travelers were delayed more than 10 hours without easily accessible bathrooms or food service.

Island businesses were heavily impacted by the interruptions in ferry service. Victoria Compton, executive director of the San Juan Economic Development Council, teamed up with members of the islands’ chambers of commerce, the San Juan Island Visitors Bureau, the Town of Friday Harbor and the San Juan County Council to draft a letter to legislature emphasizing the importance of proper ferry funding and infrastructure upgrades to the islands’ economy.

#4 Vikings boys soccer goes to state, places fourth

The Viking boys’ soccer team finished an incredible season with a fourth place finish in the state tournament in mid-November.

This is the highest ranking position the boys’ soccer team has earned in its history. The victorious team, escorted by sheriff deputies and Orcas Fire and Rescue personnel, returned home to a town with cheering fans lining the streets on Eastsound.

In the state tournament, the Vikings lost their quarter final match 1-0 to the Crosspoint Academy Warriors from Bremerton. Crosspoint scored in the first half on a penalty kick, which was the only score of the match. After the loss to the Warriors the Vikings faced the Prescott Tigers from Walla Walla County to round out the top four place standings. The Tigers scored two goals in the first half and two more in the second to leave fourth place to the Vikings.

“The team played with the highest level of spirit over the weekend,” said head coach Terry Turner. “All our athletes played very, very well; in particular, defenders Ciaran O’Neill, Skyler Gregg and Dominick Wareham. Between them, they managed to hold their opponents scoreless in field play aside from a single penalty. Midfielders Kellan Maier and Leonai Van Putten played with extreme endurance and contributed in large part to controlling the play at midfield for much of both games. We will greatly miss our seniors Kellan, Skyler and Serei next year, but I know the team is already looking forward to returning next year to compete at state.”

#5 Exchange reopens

Orcas Recycling Service’s new Exchange facility on Orcas Island had a grand reopening on Nov. 24.

The beloved re-use center burned to the ground in February 2013. The fire was ruled accidental and may have started after someone put a burning object in a trashcan. Forty-five Orcas Fire members and 10 units responded to the incident that lasted more than five hours.

In Oct. 2016, the county agreed to build the “shell” of the new Exchange building — a pole-frame, metal structure — while leaving all the interior build-out, including utilities, to ORS. The county pledged up to $600,000 to finance the shell project, which includes $150,000 in grant funding. Through November, ORS has spent over $165,000 building out the Exchange—a project that continues.

Going forward, The Exchange will be open Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the same hours that govern the Orcas Transfer Station. Initially, in order to manage the tidal wave of materials the community wants to donate, reservations were required for all dropoffs. In January, donations will be accepted without reservations. However, they will continue to be required for large loads, and reservation holders will always be helped first.

#6 Grellet-Tinner charges dismissed; lawsuit filed against county

The charges against Orcas High School teacher Gerald Grellet-Tinner, who was found guilty of sexual misconduct with a minor in June 2016, were dismissed on April 21, 2017. San Juan County Superior Court Judge Donald Eaton dismissed the charges against the 60-year-old man for two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor. The judge said the dismissal was due to a “miscarriage of justice” and that it was the responsibility of one person – former Detective Stephen Parker – who had an inappropriate relationship with the victim, which bungled the entire case.

Grellet-Tinner was accused of having a sexual relationship with one of his students, who was also his teaching assistant, in October 2016.

After the relationship between Parker, the lead detective on the case, and the victim was discovered, Parker resigned near the end of 2016. At the beginning of 2017, an independent investigation into Parker alleges that he had sex with the crime victim.

Grellet-Tinner is now seeking $10 million in compensation for damages stemming from the alleged violation of his constitutional rights by the San Juan County Prosecutor’s Office.

#7 Orcas Library expansion complete

Less than a year after the ground-breaking ceremony, the Orcas Island Library unveiled its $4 million expansion. A grand opening celebration was held on June 23.

HKP Architects in Mt. Vernon drew the plans that included vaulted, acoustically backed ceilings, fir finish work, LED lighting and open, bright spaces. HBHansen Construction, based out of Lynden, Washington, won the contracting bid for the job.

The 5,000-square-foot expansion includes more room for children and young adults, quiet reading and work space, rooms for meetings, additional computers and multiple types of seating to work with one’s own computer, more book space with accessible shelving, outdoor seating and improved handicap accessibility. The original entrance and lobby will be turned into a cafe-style seating area; the bathrooms will remain, and there are two additional restrooms in the new building.

After feedback from the community about the need for more books, computers, meeting areas and space for kids, the Library Board of Trustees began to pursue an expansion project in 2014. The existing library was originally designed to be a 12,000-square-foot structure, but funding availability had limited its size to half that. After consulting with volunteers and stakeholders, putting out surveys and reviewing current programs, the board concluded it was time to bring the library to its full potential.

The board secured the bulk of the $4.2 million project prior to the groundbreaking last July. They brought in $2 million in private donations; $1.4 million from a state grant and $100,000 from the Friends of the Library. In November 2016, Orcas Island voters overwhelmingly (63 percent) supported a levy lid lift, taking it from 30.3 cents per $1,000 valuation to 45 cents. The library levy hadn’t been increased since 1987. The levy revenue allowed the district to borrow funds to cover the $700,000 remaining to be raised (debt repayment is $128,000 annually for six years) as well as increase maintenance and operations and restore reserves.

When expansion-related debt is repaid, the increase in levy revenue will rebuild adequate operating reserves, which recent operations funding shortfalls have eroded.

#8 Orcas School bond and levy pass second time around

With a broken heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in the high school, windows that don’t open in the elementary school and urinals that don’t work in the locker rooms, Orcas Island School District was desperate for the community to vote yes for a capital improvements bond.

Going to the polls in February, OISD asked for $8 million to make campus upgrades, including fixing the sports fields to prepare for a track. A $1.2 million donation made to the district by Phyllis Henigson and her late husband Bob would cover the cost of constructing the track and annual maintenance, but an additional $1.36 million was needed to upgrade the existing fields and prepare the area for the proposed track. The bond required a supermajority and 59.86 percent voted yes while 40.14 percent voted no.

Following the bond failure, the school board spoke with the public and reorganized the bond into a $10.8 million bond for capital projects and a $1.36 million levy for the field improvements. Voters were content with the two measures being separated and approved of both. The school bond passed with 73.39 percent of the votes being yes, and the levy passed with 65.51 percent support.

“The levy will enable us to correct fundamental problems with the original installation of Orcas Island School District athletic fields,” said Webb. “Your bond and levy dollars will be used thoughtfully and deliberately with our students’ best interests at heart to maintain the level of education and provide the opportunities that you have come to expect from Orcas Island School District.”

The bond will be paying for: water improvements at the high school, including plumbing, sewer and fire suppression ($1,149,388); exterior and interior improvements of the old gym including new paint, siding and seismic, mechanical and electric upgrades ($1,979,189); a new music/multi-purpose room ($1,353,637); and replacing the high school’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.