Councilman Hughes on ferries, planning for growth and more

The new 144-car ferry Samish will start serving the San Juans on June 14.

All three San Juan County Council members are Geminis.

It’s a synchronicity that extends beyond their astrological signs, according to council member Rick Hughes.

“From the day to day operational side of it, we get along lock, stock and barrel,” said Hughes, referring to his fellow elected officials Bob Jarman (district 1) and Jamie Stephens (district 3).

Hughes says it’s been an exciting 2015 for the council and he is particularly proud of a law San Juan County helped pass at the state level.

House Bill 1868 broadens the state statute defined list of expenditures governing the county road fund to include “marine uses relating to navigation and moorage.” The change will allow San Juan County to use money from its road fund on maintaining, improving and replacing marine facilities including Odlin dock, Obstruction Pass boat launch and Hunter Bay dock and boat ramp.

Hughes has long advocated for state, county and grant funding to support the county’s marine facilities. His efforts in Olympia were aided by council members in other Washington counties as well as state Rep. Kristine Lytton who introduced the bill, and supported by state Rep. Jeff Morris and state Senator Pam Roach.

“The bill passed because Jamie Stephens was in Olympia all the time working on county issues,” Hughes said. “So I was able to focus on one particular thing for the county.”

If the Senate and House approve their budgets, Hughes said the county is set to receive $1 million in transportation funding for a study on how to fix an eroding road near Agate Beach on Lopez and parking improvements at the Orcas Ferry Landing. The state department of transportation owns five acres above the ferry landing and Hughes is hoping the county can lease or buy it to provide up to 100 free spaces for long-term and short-term parking. In addition, the area would be for rental car pickups and shuttle drop-offs. Washington State Ferries is also leasing the vacant building on the county dock and will turn it into a waiting area.

“We have a really good opportunity to turn the ferry terminal into a better space,” he said.

Other county news

For the first time in San Juan County’s history, it is compliant with the Growth Management Act, which is a way for counties to manage growing through critical areas, urban growth areas and development regulations.

“Now that everything is

approved and compliant, we can go back and reevaluate what might need small tweaks,” he said. “We need to be looking at our code all the time. We also have the opportunity to update the GMA by 2018. It gives us a chance to look at county densities. This will set our plan for the next 20 years.”

Hughes says the community talks to him frequently about lack of housing in the county. One of his ideas is to raise the height requirement in urban growth areas from 30 feet to 36 feet in order to allow apartments over stores.

The county, in partnership with the Economic Development Council, is launching a “Made in San Juan County” program.

EDC Director Victoria Compton has designed a logo that can be used as a sticker or a stamp (pictured above) to designate locally created products. Businesses can also sign up to be members of the program and receive publicity on a Made in the San Juans website (a draft of the site is at

“We want to create brand equity between island-made products,” Hughes said. “It is difficult to compete with the mainland in production levels, but we can compete with small-batch, hand-crafted items.”

San Juan County used to be the biggest producer of apples in the state of Washington. There are 41 historic varieties of apple in the islands that Hughes would love to see brought back.

Hughes hopes residents will shop locally, but says, “If you aren’t going to support your local businesses and want to shop somewhere else, please do it online and not on the mainland. San Juan County receives sales-tax on items shipped here. It’s called destination-based sales tax.”

The county recently paid off its $730,000 solid waste bond and will be reducing the solid waste excise tax by 3 percent. Starting this summer, the county will be paying for trash pick-up in Lopez Village and Eastsound.

In order to alleviate parking problems in Eastsound, Hughes is working with the public school to allow public parking when school is out.

“Hopefully business owners and their employees can park there and walk into town for work,” he said.

This year, county staff is working on the subarea plans for Eastsound, Lopez Village and Deer Harbor and completing the Shoreline Master Program.

“The best thing a government can do economically is to provide basic well-planned, well-designed capital improvements,” Hughes said.

He says he’s got some “crazy ideas” like putting a hydroelectric power facility at Mountain Lake. A total of 20,000 gallons of water per minute spill off Mountain Lake in the winter months. Hughes says this could be an alternate power source for key entities on the island like the fire department.

“We’re kicking it around with OPALCO. I just don’t know how realistic it is right now,” he said.

Ferry reservations

Reservations for Washington State Ferries was mandated by the state legislature as a way to serve increased demand by more fully utilizing existing terminal and vessel capacity instead of building bigger terminals and boats. Since it launched Jan. 5, 2015, there have been mixed reviews from the public.

But Hughes says he is “cautiously optimistic that reservations will be great for our community.

“I have found that WSF is very open to changing some of the nuances of the system,” he said. “If we don’t give this a chance and try to be supportive, we have to be aware that we could lose capacity. We won’t really know how it shakes out until the end of the season. If it’s a disaster for the county, we’ll stand up and fight it. But I hope we are all giving it a chance. If this fills up our boats, we have a better chance of getting additional capacity.”

Hughes said that since the reservation system came out, on non-holiday weekends, 60 percent of the sailings have been sailing 60 percent full. He points out that the goal is to spread out the ferry ridership so that boats aren’t sailing empty, but says he is “incredibly sympathetic” to people’s issues with the system.

WSF Reservations Manager Dwight Hutchinson released a statement after Memorial Day weekend, saying “lines were very short or nonexistent and demand was spread.

“There are still minor issues to review,” he wrote. “We’re seeing some customers make two reservations and willingly sacrifice one to give themselves options. Or make a late insurance reservation, and not have it redeemed when they travel on stand by … So there are challenges to address, but the answer to the big questions, like can we keep the vehicle queues short and move as many vehicles as in the past? – is a resounding ‘yes.’”

Customers can call the customer service team if they have any problems at 206-464-6400. This number is staffed seven days a week from 5 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Hutchinson can be reached directly at 206-515-3652 or

To be a part of the reservation conversation, join the  Washington State Transportation Commission Ferry Riders Opinion Group and participate in their survey:

Senator Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, is asking for input on the ferry reservations.

“Over the past several weeks, I’ve heard from many of you regarding your ideas, questions and concerns regarding the Washington State Ferries Reservation system,” he wrote in a press release. “I want you to know that I too have questions and share some of your concerns … the implementation of the reservation system is a work in progress and while I do not anticipate, nor do I support, the repeal of the system, there are likely to be changes made as we learn what works and what doesn’t.”

Ranker encourages feedback from islanders. He can be reached at 786-7678 or by email at

“I have held meetings with members of our lodging industry, construction industry, local ferry workers, chamber of commerce, visitors’ bureau and others. I have also met directly with State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson,” Ranker wrote. “These meetings have been productive and critical toward understanding all aspects of this issue. I have provided a letter to Secretary Peterson that lays out my preliminary recommendations to address some of the issues with the reservation system.”

WSF took possession of the $126 million Samish from boat builder and contractor Portland, Ore.-based Vigor Industrial in early April. The 144-car vessel will begin full-time service on the Anacortes/San Juans route on June 14.

Along with more space for taller vehicles, the Samish offers an ADA-compliant car-deck restroom, flexible seating configurations, improved heating and ventilation, and wider stairwells and passageways, according to WSF.

“It is a great honor to have it here,” Hughes said.