Top stories of 2017 | Part II

  • Wed Jan 3rd, 2018 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 as well as events we feel impacted our communities.

Part one of the series included: 1. Bear roams Orcas Island; 2. UW opens clinics; public hospital district on spring ballot; 3. Multiple ferry breakdowns disrupt summer commerce; 4. Vikings boys soccer goes to state, places fourth; 5. Exchange reopens; 6. Grellet-Tinner charge dismissed; lawsuit filed against county; 7. Orcas Library expansion complete; 8. School bond and levy pass second time around.

#9 Granny the whale dies

The year began with a heartbreaking announcement from the Center for Whale Research that Granny, an approximately 100 year old orca and local icon, was seen since October 2016 and had likely died. Granny was the oldest in J-pod, the largest of the three pods that make up southern resident orcas, the local whales. Over the century of Granny’s life, the Southern residents were seen as monsters, shot at and used as military training targets up to the ‘50s, captured for aquariums during the 60 and ‘70s. Attitudes shifted, orcas suddenly became revered in the ‘80s, followed by whale watch boats, cheered at by humans on shore. Granny witnessed clean oceans turn polluted, saw her food source – 120-pound Chinook salmon stocks dwindle to 50 pounds. She watched fellow Southern residents starve. The lack of Chinook could be the final blow to the whales. A study released in Scientific Reports found a 25 percent chance thes orcas will become extinct within 100 years. Orca Relief Citizens Alliance has petitioned to have a no-motor boat zone in the orcas popular fishing ground along the westside of San Juan Island, hopping giving them a quiet area would give them a better chance at catching the few salmon available. Some researchers are proposing breaching the Snake River dam, believing it would help Chinook. Recently, islanders came together to devise local action plans including: lowering speeds in county waters; reducing Chinook harvest limiting whale watch boat permits; banning toxic fertilizers and pesticides in the county; and charging an extra fee for whale watch boat customers to use for orca recovery.

#10 Friday Harbor residents die from carbon monoxide

In April 4, 2017, Brook Ashcraft discovered her sister Kelli, 22, and a friend, Troy Sullivan, 31, dead in the bedroom of a home owned by Edward and Tami Ashcraft located outside of Friday Harbor. The cause of death for both of them was determined to be from carbon monoxide poisoning.

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed in the San Juan County Superior Court on July 24, followed by a second lawsuit filed on Nov. 21. The first complaint was submitted by the Sullivan estate and the second by Brook and the estate of Kelli.

According to the first lawsuit, toxicology reports showed that the level of carbon monoxide in Sullivan’s blood was 71 percent carboxyhemoglobin saturation while the average adult human’s blood typically contains less than 3 to 5 percent.

Lawsuit documents alleged that homeowner Edward Ashcraft had negligently repaired and modified the house’s heating system under the instruction of two Friday Harbor companies, Jim’s Heating and Refrigeration and Inter-Island Propane, LLC, both of which are owned and operated by Jimmie Lawson, II.

According to the lawsuit, “the repairs and modifications did not satisfy local building safety codes and manufacturer standards.”

It claims that the companies “knew about the negligence but took no action to protect occupants or guests of the home.” It also stated that the defendants’ acts and omissions caused Sullivan’s death as a guest at the residence.

The lawsuit filed on Nov. 21, stated that on the morning of April 4, “Brook awoke with a throbbing headache, was dizzy and had great difficulty walking.” It stated that she called out for help with no response. When she went to find out why no one had answered her, she found Kelli and Sullivan unconscious. According to court documents, Brook called 911 and began to perform CPR. She had to be hospitalized due to her exposure to carbon monoxide

#11 Propane tank permit denied after community outcry

After months of deliberation, San Juan County Hearing Examiner Sharon Rice denied Inter-Island Propane’s request to house a 30,000-gallon propane storage tank at 27 Seaview Street in Eastsound.

Rice finalized her decision on Oct. 2 after postponing her determination on Aug. 31 and requesting more information from Inter-Island Propane, county staff and local fire agencies.

Inter-Island Propane, based on San Juan Island, asked the county for permission to put the storage tank on a vacant lot of land that is currently zoned service and light industrial. Inter-Island was in the process of purchasing the land. According to conclusion documents, for a conditional use permit to be approved, 10 criteria must be met.

The requirements of criterion 5, which states the area is “adequately served by existing public facilities and services including fire protection and water,” were not met in the application. Rice said that the water available from Eastsound Water User Association’s existing infrastructure is not sufficient for necessary fire suppression. Additionally, Rice noted, Orcas Island Fire and Rescue is not prepared, with either staff or equipment, for a potential fire and evacuation situation.

Rice also wrote in her conclusion that the application did not meet criterion 3: “The proposed use will not cause significant adverse impacts on the human or natural environments that cannot be mitigated by conditions of approval,” by not providing an evacuation route in case of emergency.

The application also failed criterion 9: “The proposal does not include any use or activity that would result in the siting of an incompatible use adjacent to an airport or airfield.” Port of Orcas Manager Tony Simpson wrote a response to the remand order that said the airport does not consent to having its runways used for an emergency evacuation plan.

“Certainly in an unforeseen emergency such as an overturned delivery truck we would assist our neighbors as needed,” wrote Simpson. “But we are not granting an ‘a priori’ easement to the fire department or our neighbors to ingress or egress across port property.”

The permit request, filed on May 31, 2017, first went before the hearing examiner on July 13. It was a contentious process from the start, and more than 30 letters were submitted to the examiner from residents in the neighborhood. The letters cited concerns about increased traffic, a leak or a possible explosion.

During the July 13 hearing, Rice said the county had until July 27 to respond in writing to the public comments. Inter-Island Propane co-owner Donny Galt requested to have the option to respond, and he had until July 31. On Aug. 14, Rice extended the response period out one week.

#12 County council passes immigration initiative

On Aug. 15, San Juan County Council unanimously adopted an ordinance to prevent the collection of immigration statuses. Without this information, county staff cannot share it with federal agencies to deport undocumented immigrants.

If the ordinance had not been adopted by council, an initiative proposing it would have been on the general election ballot this fall. The public hearing brought roughly 20 residents who spoke in support of adopting the ordinance that day and two against.

The Immigrant Rights Group of the Orcas Women’s Coalition, which spearheaded the measure, needed to get more than 1,635 signatures from San Juan County registered voters by June 30 for the initiative to be voted on during the next election. They collected 2,382 valid signatures before submission.

#13 Two iconic Eastsound business close

Teezers

After 30 years serving the Orcas Island community, Teezers served its last customer on Dec. 29.

In the beginning, Teezers’ menu was simple — drip coffee and their famous cookies (only 50 cents at the time). And yes, young people, there was a time when lattes and caramel macchiatos weren’t a thing. Teezers soon progressed to other delicious baked goods created from scratch in the early hours of the morning. But Teezers will not only be remembered for their mouthwatering treats and comforting drinks. It will be remembered as a place where relationships were built, where people went to chat with friends and neighbors and to visit with their fellow community members.

The decision to close was not an easy one for the Bledsoes and was ultimately made so that Mark and Carolyn could focus more on their health. The “Teezers crew” who fills half of the store on any given weekday morning; drinks like “the Shelby,” that are famous only at Teezers; the high school students to whom Mark deals his daily sarcasm; and the young children who run around the counter to give “Cece” a hug before receiving their hot chocolate.

“It has been one unforgettable, crazy, adventure — and all because we love coffee, cookies and creating a space that feels like our home.”

Shinola

For nearly 40 years, Shinola Jewelry has been the premier spot to purchase fine jewelry on Orcas.

At the beginning of the new year, owner Vance Stephens will be hanging up his jewelers’ loupe — at least in his current location.

“I’m grateful for the support that local people and visitors have given me over the years,” he said.

Stephens will continue to create jewelry out of his home studio and sell inventory or meet for a consultation by appointment at 360-376-4508 or 360-317-4115 after Jan. 31.

Stephens originally came to Orcas in 1972 to visit friends and opened Shinola in Eastsound a few years later.

He started out working in silver but now creates pieces mainly with gold, precious metal mountings and gemstones. He uses the lost wax casting method, which means pieces are cast from an original sculpture. A wax model is made from either injecting a rubber mold or custom-made by carving.

Stephens met his wife, storyteller Antoinette Botsford, on Orcas 30 years ago. Her beaded and gemstone jewelry pieces are also featured in Shinola.

Stephens has manned his shop six days a week for four decades, so he is looking forward to some time off. A self-proclaimed homebody, he enjoys gardening and taking their dog Friday for walks. Botsford and Stephens also love road trips and plan to visit friends in the Pacific Northwest.

#14 Lost dog rescued in Moran State Park

In an effort that took more than nine hours to execute, Orcas Island Fire and Rescue recovered Keda Holland from a rocky cliff in Moran State Park. Miraculously, crews also discovered her lost dog Bowser during the process.

“The whole thing was incredible,” said Holland, a Seattle resident. “Everybody was amazing. Everybody was so nice and so helpful.”

On Oct. 4, Holland was searching off of Summit Trail for Bowser, who had been missing near Mountain Lake since Oct. 1, when she climbed down a rock face and became stuck. She was able to call for help with her cellphone at around 9:30 a.m.

“I called the state parks for help, and they called the fire department,” said Holland. “They all went looking for me.”

A team of 12 OIFR responders, three park employees and one deputy gathered at 10 a.m. to look for her near the Northwest corner of Mountain Lake. The rescue crew was able to track the cellphone to that general location. Holland said she was yelling for help, and at 11:40 a.m., the crew made vocal contact with her. It took another hour and a half before they made visual contact.

Rescue units were positioned both above and below Holland. Rescuers rappelled down to where she was, then chose to lower her to safety instead of bringing her back up.

“I was just kind of getting out of the way – and then I saw my dog,” said Holland, who found Bowser lying on the ground near the base of the cliff.

Bowser, a four-year-old rescue mixed breed, had several deep wounds to his lower body and was dehydrated. Holland said it appeared he had been in the same general area since he had gone missing. The rescue crew constructed a makeshift stretcher with sticks, a blanket and some climbing ropes for the severely injured 75-pound dog, and carried him more than a mile to the trailhead.

Holland and the crew were met by veterinarian Dr. Swaran Dhaliwal, who took Bowser to her office in Eastsound to stabilize him before sending him to a veterinarian specialist in Seattle. Holland says he had a shattered shoulder on a front leg, a broken hind leg, a dislocated hip and air in his chest.

“He’s not really out of the woods yet. It’s so nice to have him and know what happened to him,” said Holland. “So far it’s looking pretty positive — he’ll be a happy three-legged dog.”

Holland escaped the situation uninjured and said she is thankful for everyone who helped rescue her and Bowser. Island residents spent hours searching in the park in the days after he became lost, and monitored each other’s progress on the Facebook page Friends of Orcas Pet Search and Rescue.

“We were just amazed at the island’s ability to come together and work on something,” she said. Bowser ultimately had to have one of this legs removed and is recovering well, according to Holland.

#15 Karl Kruger paddleboards to Alaska

After dropping out of the Race to Alaska after just 100 miles in 2016, Orcas Islander Karl Kruger, co-owners of Kruger Escapes with his wife Jessica, hopped back on his stand-up paddleboard (SUP) this summer. On Sunday, June 25, he became the first paddleboarder to complete the race from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska.

Race to Alaska, now in its third year, is a fierce competition of non-motorized boats, sailing unaided, across 750 miles along the Inside Passage. The first boat to cross the finish line won $10,000 and arrived 10 days before Kruger.

In 2016, Kruger had to quit the race prematurely due to stress fractures in his paddleboard.

Over the past year, he worked with Joe Bark of Bark Paddleboards in California to custom-build a stronger board.

It’s not a piece of trash, however, since Kruger lent it to Josh Collins to compete in the first leg of the race; Port Townsend to Victoria, British Columbia.

Collins spent 20 years in the U.S. Army Special Operations and was deployed on multiple combat missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. According to his bio on the Race to Alaska website, he spent 10 years as an Army Ranger and 10 years in Delta Force. Kruger let Collins use his board from last year’s race to paddle alongside him during the 40-mile first stage of the Race to Alaska.

Together, the duo and a third stand-up paddleboard rider took seventh, eighth and ninth place in the first stage of the race.

A documentary crew working with Collins on a film about the struggles of veterans followed him and Kruger across the first stretch of sea.

The second leg of the race, however, was 14 days of near-solitude for Kruger. On the morning of Sunday, June 11, Kruger and 33 other non-motorized vessels, primarily sailboats, set forth from Victoria to travel the 710 miles to Ketchikan.

Averaging about 50 miles a day, Kruger traversed 72 miles on his best day and 29 on his worst. Even his best days were difficult.

The 14 days Kruger paddled his way north, he survived on Hammer Nutrition supplement tablets, gels and shakes.

After two weeks of wind, rain, sun and open ocean, Kruger paddled toward the finish line in Ketchikan. The local paper reported about 30–40 people waiting on the dock for him, with many more cheering from the shoreline and porches along his route.

Stepping off his board at the end of the 750-mile trek was surreal, said Kruger.

Kruger celebrated his 45th birthday paddling through the Inside Passage.

Kruger said he would like to compete in the race next year, but doesn’t plan on making the trek aboard an SUP again.

Kruger’s story has made waves in media outlets across the country. His is a tale of strength, resilience and tenacity that has resonated throughout the SUP community and beyond. Knowing there were people out there cheering him on all along the way helped Kruger continue on.

#16 Life Care Center closes

After operating for nearly 20 years, San Juan Islands’ only live-in facility, with 24-hour nursing, shut its doors in November.

Life Care Center of the San Juan Islands closed about two months after officials from the for-profit, national corporation made the announcement. The Friday Harbor branch, which first opened as a nursing home under different ownership in 1967, housed 35 patients and employed 60.

A representative from Life Care Centers of America said the branch closed due to financial hardship and a lack of qualified staff. Local staff pointed to the island’s housing shortage, as well as low reimbursements from the center’s mostly Medicaid-insured residents.The previous October, the company settled a lawsuit for $145 million for Medicare fraud.

A 2016 citation from the state also prevented the branch from training nursing assistants for two years. One nurse claimed the branch closed an entire wing, as employee numbers dropped, preventing the business from taking in more patients and generating the revenue needed to stay afloat.

Life Care Center of the San Juan Islands offered a higher level of care than other, live-in local facilities. The lack of similar providers forced residents, like 85-year-old Sue Herd, to move off the island, away from the home she loved.

“I was desolate when I heard the news; it broke my heart,” she said about the closure. “I’ve enjoyed being here so much.”

A task force is currently working on ways to return similar medical services to the island.

#17 Farmed fish released

A net pen failure off the shore of Cypress Island dumped an unknown quantity of Atlantic salmon into the Salish Sea on Aug. 20. The nearly 30-year-old fish farm, which was reportedly showing signs of damage the day before, held 305,000 salmon, according to the farm’s owner Cooke Aquaculture. The company purchased salmon farms located on Bainbridge Island, Cypress Island, Port Angeles and Hope Island a year ago.

In the days following the collapse, the Lummi Nation declared a state of emergency, fearing the impact that the invasive salmon could have on native salmon populations. Tribe leaders encouraged their fishers to catch as many Atlantic salmon that they could, but warned against eating them, unsure of the health risks.

Cooke Aquaculture blamed the damage done to the net pens on “exceptionally high tides and currents,” in relation to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse. However, preliminary tidal data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Friday Harbor station indicated that the high tide was no higher than it had been the weeks prior.

“It’s a totally unacceptable situation that was preventable, and I’m doing everything in my power to make sure it never happens again,” Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, said. “I will very likely be introducing legislation trying to address this in the future.”

Unrelated to the fish farm failure, in December, the Washington State Department of Ecology issued Cooke an $8,000 penalty for violating state law. Cooke was required to immediately stop allowing pressure washing wastewater to enter Puget Sound.

Also in December, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz terminated Cooke’s net pen operations off the shore of Port Angeles.

The Department of Natural Resources said it discovered that Cooke’s net pens were in an unauthorized area and that Cooke failed to maintain the facility in a safe condition and failed to replace unencapsulated flotation material in order to prevent styrofoam from disintegrating into the water.