Islanders are all familiar with the sight of walls of people walking off the ferry and the seemingly never-ending traffic that comes as ferries unload. The county population doubles during summer months, and the off-season is shrinking as people are beginning to visit all times of the year. After years of surveys and public input, a Draft San Juan County Destination Management Plan is open for public comment until Oct. 31.
According to the 89-page draft plan, “Episodic visitation (population surge doubles in summer) strains water, sewer, sanitation services, and solid waste facilities while creating a challenging boom/bust economic cycle. To help relieve destination pressures, it is important to build a predictable year-round revenue model so that local businesses are stable and can make required sustainability investments.”
Even the pandemic did not slow things down. According to land managers, the plan states, the islands saw significant and impactful increases in year-round use of public lands throughout the two years by both residents and visitors. Meanwhile, according to marina managers and regional boating data, recreational boating soared as a socially distant outdoor activity, which resulted in local marinas having higher than normal fuel, garbage, water, and sewage pump-out demands. Therefore, a draft plan began to be created that included input from islanders.
“[Last year] there were seven meetings total. I attended all because I wanted to hear what residents had to say. Most of the action items were what residents brought up during the meetings,” Deborah Hoskinson, Executive Director of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau explained. “Now the plan is trying to help solve these challenges. I have been hearing many of these same things [from islanders] since I moved here 23 years ago.”
She also added that she wished more people would have showed up, and that of those that did, a large percentage were residents and not business owners. The Visitors Bureau and the county’s three Chamber of Commerce have been encouraging their members to read and comment on the plan.
According to Kendra Smith, Director of the San Juan County Environmental Stewardship Department, 129 people attended the first meeting, 134 attended the second and 72 at the third.
“Islanders contributed to and wrote this plan, to help the community address quality of life and resource concerns regarding visitation in the Islands. The feedback was highly consistent with what the County had heard from residents, businesses and visitors from the extensive tourism surveys of 2017-2019, previous community outreach from the former Parks, Trails and Natural Areas Plan (2017-2022), and the current Recreation Open Space and Stewardship (ROSS) Plan 2022 which held two open houses in October 2022,” Smith noted. “We had an active website and dedicated email system in place throughout the process to provide opportunities for input. Putting this preliminary draft plan ‘on the street’ offers another opportunity for community engagement.”
The Visitors Bureau’s mission since 2003, according to the website, has been “To enhance the economic prosperity of San Juan County by promoting the San Juan Islands as a preferred, year-round travel destination, while respecting and sustaining the Islands’ unique and diverse ecosystems, environments, lifestyles, and cultures.” Their focus is on marketing as well as stewardship messaging and education.
“As the saying goes, you have to be more careful with an island. The economy, environment, residents’ quality of life and visitor experience are the four pillars the Visitors Bureau staff consider as we do our daily jobs,” Hoskinson said.
The plan is an attempt to take those four pillars into consideration as well.
Smith listed what she viewed as key topics of the plan including how the community can reduce the impacts of the summer surge of visitation in the islands, how to balance and fund mobility and transportation safety needs identified by residents, how to monitor and evaluate visitation and resource use, to help chart acceptable management paths going forward and how islanders can support local businesses to help retain year-round services for the community.
“Other top issues we have heard more recently are ferry access, housing affordability, and seasonal worker housing,” Smith added. “These issues were noted in the plan but actions to address these complex problems are not specifically identified here because they are outside the scope of work of this planning effort. The County does have other venues to address ferries and housing affordability and access.”
The plan will not be inexpensive, and funding, Hoskinson said, will be a challenge. To add to that, the Lodging Tax, per Washington law, is limited in scope and may not be used in most instances.
Islanders are already making their opinions known about one particular proposal, the parking tax.
The draft proposes starting in 2026, “Require all marine vessels to purchase and display an annual San Juan Islands Boating sticker. Permit must be displayed for each boating vessel on the islands” and “Require all bicyclists to purchase and display an annual San Juan Island Bike sticker.”
Then, beginning in 2027, “Require all cars to purchase and display an annual San Juan Islands Parking sticker. Permits must be displayed for each car on the islands from May through September.”
Smith provided some background on how permit proposals ended up in the plan, and how they might work.
“Residents asked for miles of bike lane/road safety upgrades, marine facility/moorage improvements, enhanced mobility options, and better traffic flow/parking to address the summer surge. They also suggested we consider pursuing funding from tourists to pay for the infrastructure improvements they use. The Plan put forth the idea to develop some kind of Island Pass (or sticker), that could be applied to cars, boats, and bikes to generate revenue dedicated to addressing the infrastructure needs identified,” she said. “Currently, there are an estimated 300,000 visitor cars, unknown numbers of visitor boats, and a growing number of visitor bikes that are free-riding, or using the Island’s limited facilities without contributing to their upkeep or improvement. Details about the legality, mechanisms, equity, costs and benefits would need to be developed before any proposal could be brought forward for consideration, well after this Plan is complete. If there are other ideas about how to have visitors contribute to necessary public infrastructure (recognizing the lodging tax captures only a small fraction of visitors), the County is open to additional suggestions.”
As far as available state or federal funding, Smith said that the County regularly pursues state and federal grants to help fund programs and infrastructure, and will continue to do so. Most grants in this area of work are uncertain, intermittent and require match funds as a demonstration of local investment. Having adequate seed money allows the County to deliver modest investments over time while reserving larger investment implementation with secured grants.
Smith also wanted to clarify that the plan is neither complete or a done deal, saying that
“The County has invited this engagement on the preliminary draft and is receptive to clarifying language that may be causing confusion,” she continued adding that “adopting the plan doesn’t mean everything in it will happen; it is functionally a trail map or guide for the County to follow as it has the capacity to work on these complex issues. “For more than 40 years, citizens in this County have been debating the impacts and benefits of tourism/visitation. This is a first stab at addressing community concerns and opening of the dialogue about how we manage it going forward. We welcome constructive input.”
Tribal input has also not been added to the plan at this point. Tribal engagement, according to Smith, will occur after local feedback and input has been received and a complete enough draft plan can be shared with tribal governments.
“We are reviewing and consolidating the comments, and providing a Frequently Asked Questions piece on the https://engage.sanjuancountywa.gov/ to address common themes,” Smith explained. ”We will return to Council and make suggestions on any language changes, and request their guidance on next steps with the community and tribal engagement.”
Angela Broderick, SJC Environmental Stewardship Department’s Climate and Sustainability Coordinator wanted to clear up some confusion about the plan, “There seems to be a misconception that the SDMP is somehow focused on increasing tourism and is not being created with the local community’s needs in mind. This is certainly not the case; we’ve centered the well-being of the islands and islanders as a driving force in this work. Finding a fair middle ground is tricky work given the myriad perspectives and range of ways locals are impacted by, and benefit from, tourism. There are no goals to increase tourism in the plan. There is,” she continued, “an overall endeavor to apply a sustainability lens to the tourism we have through measures such as assessing capacity and impacts, creating stability for local businesses, deeper integration of the stewardship ethos, and infrastructure improvements which help preserve the islands as a destination. As Kendra said, this work is still evolving, and we hope the community will unite under the common cause of caring about our islands.”
To read the full plan, visit https://engage.sanjuancountywa.gov/
“We are open to feedback and look forward to continuing this important dialogue,” Smith said.