Prune Alley: light at the end of the tunnel

by Toby Cooper

Sounder contributor

Standing on the unfinished concrete apron at the Island Market’s still-barricaded west entrance, San Juan County Council member Cindy Wolf saluted the sweep of fresh black asphalt on the street a few feet away.

“This is Prune Alley,” she said to an assembled knot of Eastsound’s business people during a community briefing on July 20. “I know it has been a rough go.”

Rough it has been. Plans for Prune Alley’s “streets and sidewalks” originated 15 years ago, crafted in part because no street in Eastsound was ADA-compliant, and in part because county health officers determined that human coliform was flowing to Fishing Bay. While many countered that a reconfigured Prune Alley would sacrifice Eastsound’s traditional rural character, ultimately, village pedestrians simply grew tired of walking in the street.

Still, as with many high-visibility public projects, decisions made become decisions measured. Initial plans called for booking the disruptive construction contracts piecemeal, spanning three consecutive “shoulder seasons” to steer clear of high-season tourist traffic. But after consultations with the community and county public works, the council decided to just “bite the bullet” and get it done in one fitful season from March to September.

“I took the political heat for this,” Wolf said, “and here we are.”

Project Manager Colin Huntemer cautiously tendered Sept. 1 as a projected date for “substantial completion” of Prune Alley. Caution is justified by three lurking realities behind life in the San Juan Islands – notorious post-pandemic “supply chain” issues, ferries and weather.

“Asphalt will be done a day early,” he said. “Then we transition to dressing out the intersections. If all goes well, we are looking at a ribbon-cutting before Labor Day.”

Wolf is confident that the community’s patience will be rewarded.

“I am really excited to see the asphalt go down,” she told the group. “We are going to have a great celebration at the end of this.”

A voice piped up from the assembled group, “September 1 is not far away!”

Unfortunately, what is not far for one is an eternity for another. Established, viable Prune Alley businesses have seen revenues fall as much as 50 percent as residents find alternatives and tourists seem easily dissuaded by traffic cones and orange strings of temporary fencing in their path.

The Lower Tavern’s Teri Nigretto has grown weary of the forced isolation. Getting to the Lower is feasible if one navigates through a small maze of pathways that may or may not provide legal access, according to Nigretto. “We purchased the property after Prune Alley was decided,” she said. “We had no say. The impact has been huge.”

Wolf was asked if the county would be offering financial offsets for lost business revenues in the Prune Alley construction corridor, for which there is precedent in other jurisdictions. This was not her first time visiting the subject, she offered, and listed key questions regarding “eligibility, fairness, a formula for calculating payments, and – no small matter – the use of taxpayer dollars.” Still, she said, the matter is worthy of consideration.

Indeed, Sept. 1 is not far away. Meanwhile, in the village of Eastsound, traffic is weird, parking is a conundrum, lines for coffee are absurd and everyone is counting the days.