At the end of the year, the Islands’ Sounder takes a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months.
We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel impacted our communities. Part I ran last week; this is Part II. The following was compiled by Colleen Smith, Mandi Johnson, Laura Kussman and Heather Spaulding.
Elwha false-alarm bomb threat
At 1:30 p.m. on July 1, a cryptic sticky note containing the word “bomb” and numbers and days of the week stuck to the mirror in the women’s restroom on the Elwha prompted an investigation by the state bomb squad. For the most part, people were concerned about how long it might take for the ferry to resume service.
The U.S. Coast Guard determined the vessel should be tied to the Friday Harbor dock and all personnel evacuated. All ferry service in and out of Friday Harbor was shut down awaiting the arrival of the Washington State Patrol Bomb Squad, which flew in by helicopter to the Port of Friday Harbor. At 5:30 p.m., Deer Harbor Charters took Orcas Islanders home from Friday Harbor at no cost. With the help of bomb disposal teams from the King County Sheriff’s Office, Washington State Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard, a K-9 bomb detection unit went aboard the vessel. At 6:30 p.m., the Elwha was determined to be clear of any explosive hazards, and by 7 p.m. ferry services had resumed.
At the time of writing this re-cap, it was unclear whether or not the Washington State Patrol ever conducted an investigation regarding the sticky note. San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs recalled that “they reviewed the security footage and that was the end of if. They weren’t able to identify anything.”
Moratorium on pot production
On April 2, council members voted to temporarily enact a six-month pause on permitting marijuana production and processing operations in the county while they worked to establish rules and regulations. The first six-month moratorium lasted until Oct. 2; the extension is in effect until April 2, 2020.
The topic of prohibiting permits to new marijuana grow operations arose from the controversy surrounding three proposed farms on Lopez. The applicant for all three permits through the state’s marijuana licensing board was Laurent Bentitou, who owns waterfront property on Lopez Sound Road and Ceres Garden — a marijuana grow operation — in Bellevue, Washington.
The first proposed tier 3 site was on Ferry Road and is owned by Michael and Vicky Terra of Paducah, Kentucky. This application was withdrawn by the applicant. Then, the second and third requests were made for Bentitou’s waterfront property, a smaller location, but were also for both a tier 3 permit as well as a tier 2. Tier 1 allows for up to 2,000 square feet of plant production space; tier 2 is between 2,000 and 10,000 square feet; and tier 3 is for 10,000–30,000 square feet.
More than 350 Lopez residents created a coalition named Say No Lopez which spearheaded the movement toward creating county regulations. Opponents of marijuana farms on Lopez cite a high demand for freshwater, adding strain to island groundwater resources, which are already experiencing saltwater intrusion in some locations; the need for a set-back from property lines to buffer sights and smells; intense security measures — such as lights and tall fences — being a nuisance to neighbors; increased need for law enforcement; and decreased property values.
On Dec. 3, Community Development Planning Manager Linda Kuller presented two options to the council for consideration — neither received endorsement by the council. Discussions will continue in January when the county council returns from its winter break.
Orcas continue to decline
Things are increasingly dire for the Southern resident orcas. This year three whales- Princess Angeline, J17, Scoter, K25, and Nyssa, L84, died. Government agencies continue to work on solutions, while citizens continue to speak out and take action.
The Southern residents consist of three pods: J, K and L. They were named residents because — until recently — these orcas tend to spend their time in the Salish Sea. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, when the Southern resident declined 16 percent in just eight years, dropping from 98 to 82 whales from 1995-2003, the agency listed the unique species of cetaceans as endangered in 2005.
Researchers believe the animals are starving because their primary food source, Chinook salmon, is also endangered. Overfishing, pollution and dams all threaten the salmon’s chances for survival. As a result, this year, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is requesting collaboration with the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the governing body that creates fishing season regulations from California to Washington.
“We are taking many actions to conserve and recover Southern resident killer whales and particularly to address the three main threats including prey limitation; vessel traffic and noise; and chemical contaminants. Chinook salmon, the whales’ primary prey, are important to SRKW survival and recovery,” NOAA regional director Barry Thom wrote in a letter dated March 6, addressed to Phil Anderson, chair of the council.
Some grocery stores have stopped selling Chinook, and a few restaurants have taken the endangered fish off their menu. Many individuals have turned to other more abundant salmon species in hopes to help preserve both whale and fish alike.
In 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order establishing a task force to examine all the complex issues the whales face — lack of prey, noise and pollution. The panel was tasked with coming up with recommendations to help the endangered animals. That task force continues to meet and address threats to the whales.
Meanwhile, 15 years have passed since being declared endangered, and the Southern residents have only continued to decline. Currently, the three pods consist of a total of only 73 whales. The three deaths this year represent another four percent decline bringing the population to its lowest number in approximately 30 years. Researchers have noted that orcas are spending significantly less time in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands and more time in areas where they have a better chance of finding fish.
Coffelt Farm saved
When the future of Coffelt Farm seemed bleak earlier this year, Eric and Amy Lum agreed to a 16-month lease of the 189-parcel on Crow Valley Road that went into effect on July 1, 2019.
The couple, who own Lum Farm, will live on the property in the caretakers’ quarters and operate their own farm as well as the farmstand. They’ve been in the agriculture business for more than 20 years.
The property is owned by the San Juan County Land Bank, which purchased it in 2011 from Vern and Sidney Coffelt, who had been farming the land for 60 years. A nonprofit called the Coffelt Farm Stewards was created to oversee day-to-day farm duties. The San Juan Preservation Trust also has a conservation easement on the 189 acres.
In early 2019, the Stewards, which according to the land bank had been on the brink of dissolving several times before, asked for $1.2 million, the bulk of which would go toward a 3,600-square-foot building with a commercial kitchen, office, classroom space and three apartments. The Stewards offered to repay the land bank at a rate of 1 percent per year over the next 100 years. If funding was not provided, the Stewards said the farm would likely close.
On March 15, the land bank commission unanimously denied the request. Coffelt Farm Stewards began the process of disbanding, and all animals were relocated to other farms. The land bank issued a request for proposals for interim management. Two entities applied, and on June 23, the Lums were granted a lease that will run until December 2020. Lum Farm officially began operation of the Coffelt Farm Preserve on July 1. During the next year, land bank staff will identify and prioritize infrastructure and soil needs and devise a preserve management plan, which will be ready for public comment by this fall. The Lums intend to apply for a long-term lease.
Orcas Road project completed
Ground broke on San Juan County’s biggest public works project of the year on March 25 and was completed on Aug. 20. The $4.3 million undertaking to update Orcas Road between Nordstrom Lane and McNallie Road, which was funded primarily by grants, had been on the county’s list to complete for more than 10 years.
For 1.4 miles, there is now a four-foot wide shoulder; an elevated roadway for better line of sight; guardrails; stormwater water management; and straightened curves. Razz Construction, headquartered in Bellingham, Washington, was awarded the construction bid at $1.6 million.
Public works asked Razz to preserve eight of the cut trees, which San Juan County Council Member Rick Hughes stated were to be donated to a nonprofit to use as firewood for local households.
Orcas Center has most profitable year; new ED
After almost a year of working pro-bono as the interim Executive Director for Orcas Center, Jim Bredouw and the OC board announced they had hired Dimitri Stankevich to fill the position in May 2019. For his entire life prior, Stankevich had received a paycheck from one place: the YMCA.
In his first seven months as ED, Stankevich championed an efficient team that worked to carry out several of the performing art center’s goals. This included the unveiling of a new Orcas Center website hosted by a company that is wind-powered, connected to fiber through Rock Island Communications and switched to a new, paperless ticketing software. The team worked to digitize many of its programs such as QuickBooks and contract signing, and introduced a tiered ticket pricing program where patrons can pay a lower or higher rate based on what they can afford. In addition, Jake Perrine was promoted to artistic and technical director.
The center’s latest season, 2018-2019, had the highest number of ticket sales to date and celebrated the highest number of unique ticket buyers, highest grossing box office and best concessions number ever. The season included three of the top five grossing OC shows of all time: “Cirque Us” (#1), “Mamma Mia!” (#2) and “La Cage Aux Folles” (#5). And Michell Marshall, founder of Woman in the Woods Productions, brought a powerful and provocative show to Orcas Center’s main stage: “An Evening with Paul Rucker.”
Kaleidoscope first in U.S. to license outdoor preschool
When the Orcas Island Forest School closed in May, teachers and students alike sought ways they could continue to foster outdoor adolescent learning. According to The Child Mind Institute, on average children get only 4 to 7 minutes of outdoor playtime, but 7 hours of screen time, a day. By the start of the school year in late August, Kaleidoscope Forest Preschool announced they had become the first full-day, licensed outdoor preschool in the nation, and opened the forests of Camp Orkila and Moran State Park to their students.
Until now, no outdoor preschools in the United States were licensed, which meant there were no industry safety standards, and, although Forest School was already common, no one could offer full-day programs, an important factor for many working families. Unlicensed outdoor preschools also can’t offer state financial assistance to families. When the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families launched a 4-year pilot program to develop official requirements that all licensed outdoor preschools must follow, Kaleidoscope jumped at the chance, citing it was an easy transition and exciting opportunity to be the first to write the policy.
Aliza Yair, a state Outdoor Preschool Pilot Program specialist, said being the first program with a license is “a wonderful accolade,” and shared that nature can be a place for a young scientist to discover in a field what might be hidden to them in a textbook and that hands-on learning is a very developmentally appropriate way to engage all of children’s senses.
Mullis Center pledge protests
Mullis Senior Center’s Operations Committee decided in April that it was going to cease its pre-lunch prayer and the recitation of the “Pledge of Allegiance” at its senior meals.
After the announcement was made, a petition began circulating to bring back the pledge. Petitioners claimed that the discontinuation of the pledge was an affront to veterans.
“Our decision to eliminate this practice was made to better fulfill our mission to serve ALL seniors on San Juan Island without regard to race, color, creed, religion or national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability,” former operations committee chairperson Rita Weisbrod wrote. “The decision does not have anything to do with religion or patriotism. We certainly do not intend to disrespect veterans or the flag.”
In response to the petition, the operations committee adopted a policy that the center would continue the pledge on patriotic holidays and any other day the pledge seemed appropriate. This did not resolve the issue.
Some community members were ultimately banned from the property for reasons that vary depending on who you ask. According to the people banned, it was because they opposed the policy and were in turn given trespass warning notices and threatened with fines and imprisonment. According to Mullis Center officials, it’s because the people banned were the ones making threats.
The American Legion began a “Bring Back the Pledge” campaign.
Weisbrod ultimately resigned from her position as president of the 12-person Mullis Center Operations Committee on June 30 for health reasons brought on by being “a punching bag” for the movement. She remains on the Senior Services Council of San Juan County board.
In July, the senior center reinstated the pledge prior to meal service, however, a half hour in advance of it.
At the end of July, a new petition arose to remove three individuals from the operations committee — acting chair Stephen Shubert, secretary Nancy Geist and treasurer Carolyn Adler.
Petitioner Minnie Knych wrote in a recall letter that the committee’s bylaws say that the group is meant to represent the needs and interests of its membership and to manage the senior center’s facilities.
On Dec. 13, a lawsuit against Alder, Geist, Schubert, Weinbold and 12 other members of the Senior Services Council of San Juan County was filed by four fellow members for not conducting a recall requested by the petition; for improperly amending and violating bylaws; and for improperly amending the Articles of Incorporation.