San Juan County development department struggles to right its ship - Salish Current
February 8, 2024
San Juan County development department struggles to right its ship
Nancy DeVaux

A shorter work week and significant staff turnover have challenged the San Juan County development department in addressing permit workload. The county has a new round of applications to consider, as interim leadership continues for now. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current photo © 2024)

February 8, 2024
San Juan County development department struggles to right its ship
Nancy DeVaux

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The director of the San Juan County Department of Community Development (DCD) was fired last May after the county council had received a surge of complaints from people attempting to obtain land use and building permits. 

Council members said they were besieged with phone calls and emails from frustrated citizens who said their calls were not being returned and could not get consistent information. 

What has changed since then? Are things running any more smoothly?

After the departure of former director David Williams, interim director Norm Gollub was hired for three months, which stretched to six months before he left. Today, there is no permanent director.

The effort to recruit and hire a new director stalled after the first attempt. Two applicants were chosen to interview, but neither were selected, so the hiring process began again, with a new closing date for applications of Feb. 8. Council member Cindy Wolf said on Jan. 31 that  there were eight qualified applicants for the position. 

In the meantime, Mark Tompkins has taken on the role of Interim director, in addition to his role as director of Health and Community Services. Assisting him is Kyle Dodd, who is also the deputy director of both departments.

Tompkins did not have information on the number of permit applications in the system, just that the department is working through them “as quickly as possible,” acknowledging that some of are “six to eight months old.”

Tompkins said he attended most of the meetings last year that were organized by the building industry to bring attention to the problem. “One of the frustrations we heard was not being able to talk to people,” he said, “Now, meetings are taking place and people are being called back.”

Not only did the director leave, but the building official left as well. “A new director and new staff with different interpretations can lead to confusion,” Tompkins observed.

“We need to be consistent and provide people with good information,” he said. “Hopefully we will find a director that can provide steady leadership.”

‘Broken’

Mike Carlson, president of the San Juan Building Association, told the Salish Current, that “earlier in the year, several of us were super vocal and involved in meetings to communicate to Mike Thomas (county manager) and the county council about our broken DCD.”  

He shared several letters from people who were beyond frustrated at the process and said there were many others.

One of the letters to the county council was from the general manager of Roche Harbor Resort, Brent Snow, who retired at the end of 2023. Snow’s letter described the disagreements with the DCD over permitting for 24 units of long-term affordable rental housing within  Roche Harbor’s designation as a Master Planned Resort. 

He described in an eight-page letter the difficulties in obtaining clear information, and the DCD’s insistence that the Master Planned Resort Plan is out of date and should be updated before any new permits are issued because affordable housing was not part of the Master Planned Resort. Snow pointed out that affordable housing is not an identified use in any land-use designation.

When asked about the letter, Tompkins said Gollub had ruled that Roche Harbor did not have to pursue the larger Master Planned Resort update. “We are working with Roche Harbor,” Tompkins said.  There are two different projects now in process: one for a single building permit for housing for an employee, and a land-use permit for an additional three units. A larger project for what is being called “accessible workforce housing” is also being discussed. The term “affordable housing” is not being used for this project since the term may imply more specific definitions.

Progress?

Carlson said he hasn’t had the time to delve into whether there has been recent progress in DCD but said, “In the near term, I have heard that having some seasoned leadership over that department with Mark Tompkins and Kyle Dodd is in fact making some difference. Many are hopeful that the DCD will get a good permanent director for the long run.”

Jason Hensel, a development consultant on Orcas Island who was involved in the meetings between the county council and the building industry last year, recalled the time he worked for the county as a building official several years ago. He said that at that time, there were more staff with more experience. Now, the department is stymied as there “are not enough bodies, and since they went to four days a week, 20% of the work week was erased.” He thinks the department remains “understaffed and undertrained.”

Sandy Bishop, executive director of Lopez Community Land Trust, said that a couple years ago DCD was in fairly rough shape. “With so much staff turnover and the loss of leadership, combined with loss of institutional knowledge, a big hole was created,” she said.

She said her dealings this past year have felt steadier:  “It is still not the same department it was five years ago, but it is starting to function with continuity.” 

County council chair Jane Fuller said that the recruiting firm conducted a rigorous process by interviewing many stakeholders and that this strategy of public consultation “got a lot of rich feedback.” 

Fuller is aware that people are continuing to have challenges, but her expectations are that the department will be run better.  She said she appreciates the interim solutions provided by Gollub and Tompkins, and knows there is more work to do. She acknowledged that there had been “chaos,” and said, “it’s been a year when DCD has been quite challenged.”  

Her hope is that, “looking back a year from now, we’ll see the ship has been righted.”

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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