Councilmen sworn in, CT, submarine cables and orcas discussed at SJC Council

The first San Juan County Council meeting of the year, on Jan. 10, included about five hours of public comment and agenda discussions, with two elected councilmen.

New councilman

Councilmen elected in last November’s race were sworn in at the start of the meeting. Bill Watson, District 1, was sworn in for his first council term and Rick Hughes, District 2, was sworn in for his second consecutive term.

“It’s been an honor to serve you for the last four years and it’s an honor to serve again,” said Hughes.

Hughes was voted as council chairman and Watson as vice chairman by unanimous votes. Hughes welcomed the new council with county flags.

“I look forward to representing all of you — whether you voted for me or not, that’s all under the bridge now,” said Watson, who urged islanders to contact him with issues.

Submarine cable replacement

Gerry Lawlor, of Rock Island, and Joel Mietzner, of OPALCO, explained, during the public comment section, that a CenturyLink underwater fiber cable could break, anytime, because the cable is fraying.

It could also break when OPALCO works on the power cable from Lopez to San Juan Island in June.CenturyLink has tied their cable to OPALCO’s with rope and wire to keep it up, said Mietzner. When OPALCO employees fix their cable, it could compromise the one CenturyLink attached to it.

“It could be a 30- to 60-day outage — it won’t be like last time,” said Lawlor.

The last major outage occurred in 2013, when a CenturyLink fiber cable, which runs underwater from the Lopez to the San Juan Island broke, leaving parts of the county without internet and 911services. Communication was completely restored after 10 days.

That’s the same CenturyLink cable that’s fraying, today. The fiber cable is encased in a thin, waterproof steel, which is not completely closed. Fiber is jutting out of the jagged seal, which is cutting and wearing the fiber down, said Rock Island’s Dan Burke to The Journal.

OPALCO’s power cable is encased in armored steel. About every 20 years, OPALCO replaces submarine cables to ensure operations, said Burke. OPALCO will add fiber to the cable as well, as it has done with most of the islands’ other submarine cables to lessen the islands’ communication reliance on Centurylink, said Burke.

Mietzner requested council help to create a plan to ensure 911 connectivity in case of another outage. Councilman Hughes requested that OPALCO, Rock Island and CenturyLink meet at a January council meeting to discuss the issue. OPALCO staff has been requesting CenturyLink to detach its cable from OPALCO’s for about a year, said Suzanne Olson of OPALCO public relations to The Journal.

A CenturyLink representative told The Journal the cable’s “integrity and it’s communication paths”are not currently disrupted and the cable will be replaced once the current permits are obtained, but did not give an exact date.

“This exterior sheath fraying is not uncommon in the type of environment that the cable is in, where it is subject to tidal action and other forces of nature,” wrote CenturyLink’s Mark Molzen in an email to The Journal. “There are several layers of protection for the fiber optics inside the cable and we do not believe there is a risk at this time.”

OPALCO, or Orcas Power and Light Cooperative, is a nonprofit cooperative, jointly owned by its members who use the electricity it provides to San Juan County. Rock Island Communications is a for-profit internet service provider, which was acquired by OPALCO in 2015. CenturyLink is a national telecommunications company that sells internet and phone services to the islands. RockIsland re-sells CenturyLink DSL connections but has its own fiber infrastructure on the island.

Orcas protection zone

Janet Thomas, San Juan Island coordinator with Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance, sought council support during the public comment section for the organization’s petition to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a whale protection zone on the western and southern coasts of San Juan Island. NOAA is responsible for the conservation of Southern resident killer whales, according to the alliance. Commercial and private motorized whale watching would be prohibited about a mile from the shoreline, from April 1 through Sept. 30, in the approximate 10 square miles from Mitchell point to Cattle Point, according to the petition.

Thomas compared the petition to the Washington Supreme Court’s decision to uphold San Juan County’s 1994 ban on jet skis to protect orcas.

“‘It defies logic to suggest an ordinance is unduly oppressive when it only regulates the activity which is directly responsible for the harm,’” read Thomas from the court’s ruling.

NOAA opened a 90-day comment period on Jan. 12 to help determine whether the petition will be approved. Submit comments by searching the document “NOAA-NMFS-2016-0152” at and clicking the “comment now” button. The public can also write to Lynne Barre, NMFS West Coast Region, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115.

Ferry relocation

Council moved to help draft a letter to prevent the relocation of the interisland ferry from Friday Harbor to Anacortes, by Washington State Ferries. It will be sent to the state governor, senators and Washington State Department of Transportation.

Chief Administrator of San Juan Island EMS Jerry Martin said he’d like the boat close to the island in case of emergencies to load apparatuses like a fire engine and personnel to other islands. County council said at a recent meeting that they would work with Martin to keep the ferry on San Juan Island.

The Salish is the current inter-island until March then it will be Chelan and then the Tillicum. In October, the islands will have the Sealth. Hughes said WSF told him the Sealth could eventually be based in Anacortes overnight to serve the inter-island route.

“We’re trying to prevent that from happening,” said Martin.

According to Martin, the ferries were used to move apparatus in the fire at Downriggers in August 2013.

“It’s important to keep a moored boat here,” said Hughes.

WSF spokesman Ian Sterling said there are no imminent plans to move the ferry. He added that WSF is always looking at ways to move boats around to make it easier for crews that are dispatched out of Anacortes and Friday Harbor or if the move can cut costs.

“There are a lot of considerations to make that (moving a ferry) happen,” said Sterling

Community Treasures

During the meeting’s public comment section, Francine Shaw, a land use planner from Friday Harbor hired by the Community Treasures board, presented council with over 1,100 signatures on a petition, requesting the organization’s property be rezoned from non-conforming to commercial.

“We all know non-conforming areas are meant to go away,” said Shaw.

Seven community members at the meeting requested council rezone the land to ensure Community Treasures’ longevity.

“It’s important that you make it a permanent commercial zone, not just that you support it,” said Ron Hanson, of Friday Harbor, to the council.

Hughes said the county would not hinder Community Treasures operations and would not perform any code enforcement.

“They can continue to operate as they are,” said Hughes.

He added that council is still planning to update Community Treasures’ status in the Comprehensive Plan Update 2017-2018. Council will have a meeting in the next 30 days to further discuss the issue.

The owner of the Community Treasures property, Frank Penwell, wants to relinquish the property’s lease to the nonprofit’s board, but the board wants the land designation to change before the purchase, as the liability to operate it under the non-conforming status is too high. The thrift store and recycling center’s land was originally designated as commercial when purchased in 1978. Land designation has changed since then, which makes running a business on the property illegal without purchasing county permits deeming the land non-conforming — meaning it doesn’t conform with the land’s current zoning regulations. Penwell previously told The Journal he has been fighting to make this change since 2008.

Staff photo/Hayley Day                                Joel Mietzner, of OPALCO, shows examples of CenturyLink’s frayed fiber cable (top) andOPALCO’s replacement power and fiber cable (bottom).

Staff photo/Hayley Day Joel Mietzner, of OPALCO, shows examples of CenturyLink’s frayed fiber cable (top) andOPALCO’s replacement power and fiber cable (bottom).

Contributed photo/Public records request                                CenturyLink’s fiber cable is tied to OPALCO’s power cable with rope and wire.

Contributed photo/Public records request CenturyLink’s fiber cable is tied to OPALCO’s power cable with rope and wire.

Contributed photo/Public records request                                CenturyLink’s fiber cable, which creates internet and phone communications, including 911, is fraying.

Contributed photo/Public records request CenturyLink’s fiber cable, which creates internet and phone communications, including 911, is fraying.