[Updated Jan. 14, 2024]
As the new year begins, here’s a look at the issues and people to keep eyes on in San Juan County in the year to come.
County council elections
Two of the three seats on the County Council will be up for election on the November general ballot. The District One seat representing San Juan and Stuart Island is held by Christine Minney, and the District 2 seat, representing Orcas, Waldron and Blakely islands is held by Cindy Wolf. Both incumbents are in their first terms.
Wolf recently confirmed that she will be seeking reelection. She has completed filing with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) and named a campaign treasurer. She anticipates making a formal reelection announcement in February. To date, Minney has not completed filing with the PDC for 2024 and it is unclear whether she will stand for reelection.
Both Wolf and Minney have taken controversial positions in their first terms and may attract opposition. Former council member Rick Hughes recently indicated that he is not inclined to run again for the District 2 seat and to date no others have stepped forward publicly in either district and shared their intentions.
County Manager Mike Thomas announced last November that after 10 years on the job, he will be leaving in February. The process of finding his successor is off to a slow start. According to Wolf, initial meetings between council members and the executive search firm that is supporting the search for his successor are just now being scheduled. Wolf indicated that it is likely that there will be an interim county manager in place until Thomas’s permanent successor is found, with Deputy County Manager Mark Tompkins being a likely choice for the interim position.
The county has not yet hired a director for the Department of Community Development. which has been without a permanent director since the firing of David Williams in May 2023. There continues to be extended response and turnaround time for building permit applications and other basic services. (Read more: “San Juan County permit woes result in director firing,” Salish Current, May 12, 2023)
The county instituted a 32-hour work week for most county employees on Oct. 1. While there are early signs that the move has resulted in reducing job vacancies and has improved the county’s financial position, the new structure has not been in place long enough to evaluate the impact on county services. (Read more: “As San Juan county workers switch to 32 hours a week, some are taking second or third jobs,” KNKX Public Radio, Oct. 6, 2023)
Renewal authorization for the SJC Land Bank
A measure to renew the real estate excise tax (REET) that funds the Land Bank will be on the November general election ballot. [Correction: The Land Bank renewal may be on the ballot in 2024, if the county council takes that action.] The Land Bank was established in 1990 and reauthorized in 1999 and 2011. Current authorization extends to the end of 2026. The program has been successful in meeting its land preservation mission, but the Land Bank has also generated controversy over the years and this is likely to be a closely fought effort to renew its authorization.
No comprehensive solution has emerged to this chronic issue, but local affordable housing groups continue their work. On Orcas, the OPAL Community Land Trust is moving forward with development of 10 new townhouse units at Kidder Way. Site work will begin later this year, with an expectation that construction will be completed in mid-2025. Planning is also underway for approximately 18 rental units on the Pea Patch property (read more below). At the Port of Orcas, commissioners have expressed interest in exploring what the Port can do to address this issue. And residents of Shaw Island are in the process of establishing a community land trust with the intention of providing rental housing for local workers. Progress also continues with the Argyle project, a 40-unit rental development in Friday Harbor that is a partnership between the county and the San Juan Community Home Trust. (Read more: “Home Trust selected to build San Juan affordable housing,” Salish Current, Apr. 12, 2023)
Ferries / water taxi
The recent announcement by Washington State Ferries that the return to “normal” ferry service is not a possibility for at least the next five years confirmed what islanders have known for years. The reliability of service to and from Anacortes has declined significantly in recent years, and interisland service has faced numerous cancelled sailings in 2023 due to both crew and boat shortages. This has had a detrimental impact on schools, commerce between the islands, the county fair and the ability of islanders to directly interact with county government. Locally based efforts to establish a private water taxi service are likely to continue to gather momentum in the coming year. (Read more: “Strangled by ferry crisis, islanders demand action,” Salish Current, Nov. 20, 2023)
Orcas Island Pea Patch project
The concept of developing a social services campus involving the Orcas Island Community Resource Center, Food Bank, and OPAL took a big step forward with the acquisition of the 11.3-acre Pea Patch property in early December. A steering committee representing each organization will begin site planning soon.This collaborative project is a significant undertaking, with an overall development budget estimated at approximately $28 to $30 million.
Orcas Island Fire District
2023 saw the failure of two identical levy proposals by large majorities and the election of three new commissioners to the five-member body. While all agree that there is a pressing need to push for a third levy vote as soon as April, the meetings of the reconstituted commission has still not set a date to bring a revised levy proposal to the public. (Read more: “Orcas fire district levy defeat forces ‘austerity’ budget,” Salish Current, Nov. 16, 2023)
Lopez Island Pool
After years of planning and raising funds, this looks like the year that construction of a new community pool could finally get underway. While construction permits have been issued by the county, there is still a need to raise additional funds to support the project. (Read more: “Design, permit delays stymie Lopez pool construction,” Salish Current, Sept. 29, 2023)
San Juan Island multimodal trail
Although the Zylstra Lake Trail was removed recently from the county’s six-year Transportation Improvement Plan and the Annual Construction program, the county says the project has not been scrapped. The $5.2 million congressional funding package allows the county to obligate funds by September 2026. A new community process to explore alternatives is expected to begin this year. (Read more: “Zylstra Lake trail project removed from county plans,” Salish Current, Dec. 1, 2023)
Levies for the San Juan and Orcas Island School Districts will be voted on in February. The Orcas levy is a four-year levy that would raise approximately $2.6 million in 2025 and 2026, and $2.75 million in 2027 and 2028. The levy would provide financial support for basic educational programs and facility maintenance that are not fully supported by state funding. The capital and technology levy proposed for the San Juan Island School District would raise approximately $1.86 million per year for four years. According to the district’s levy fact sheet, funding from the levy would support safety improvements, major facility repairs and technology upgrades. Both levies require a simple majority for approval. (Read more: “Island schools avoid perfect storm menacing budgets,” Salish Current, May 5, 2023)
These are some of the topics and issues that we will be following and reporting on in the months to come.
— Reported by Minor Lile, with Nancy DeVaux