Madsen: Ag Guild will try to raise $400K to buy 150 Nichols St.

The San Juan County Council votes Tuesday on whether to accept the deed for easements on 150 Nichols St., a site proposed for a year-round farmers market and events center. The public hearing is at 1 p.m. - Scott Rasmussen
The San Juan County Council votes Tuesday on whether to accept the deed for easements on 150 Nichols St., a site proposed for a year-round farmers market and events center. The public hearing is at 1 p.m.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

Mark Madsen of the San Juan Islands Agricultural Guild said the so-called Brickworks project is not dead.

Within a day of County Council member Richard Fralick and Rich Peterson’s votes killing the Land Bank’s purchase of conservation and historical preservation easements on the property, Madsen said the Guild would try to get more time from the property owners and raise from other sources the $400,000 that would have been obtained from the sale of the easements.

Fralick, of Orcas West, and Peterson, of San Juan North, voted Aug. 24 to reject the deed for the easements at 150 Nichols St., site of a proposed farmers market and events center.

Voting to accept the deed: Council members Gene Knapp, Orcas East; Bob Myhr, Lopez/Shaw; and Howard Rosenfeld, Friday Harbor.

Under the county charter, at least four votes are needed for a new law or resolution, such as acceptance of a property deed, to be approved. Councilwoman Lovel Pratt, a former director of the project’s proponent, the San Juan Islands Agricultural Guild, recused herself on the advice of the prosecuting attorney.

The vote came on the heels of a public hearing that spanned more than three hours and at which testimony by the public was nearly unanimous in support of the Land Bank's financial contribution for the Brickworks project.

Of 28 people who testified, one — San Juan Island's Bill Wright, a frequent and outspoken critic of the council — opposed the Land Bank's investment.

Others expressed concerns about the Land Bank’s future if the investment was approved.

Eric Adelberger of San Juan Island said he's a strong supporter of the Land Bank, but hopes that in the future the agency backs away from any project that proves controversial.

"I'm worried about the Land Bank," Adelberger said. "I'd like it to stay very popular in this community. I think there's some unrealistic estimates with this project."

Ruth Mahan, who served as the Land Bank's first executive director, countered that by rejecting the deeds the council would ignore the work done by the Land Bank Commission and the agency's staff, as well as an established process of developing acquisitions and easements.

Mahan said the council could well undermine the support and credibility that the publicly-owned land conservation agency has developed since it was created by voters almost 20 years ago.

"What will it mean if businesses and property owners can't rely on the Land Bank anymore?" she said.

The hearing drew a crowd that proved too large for the County Council hearing room, which has a maximum capacity of 49. Perhaps as many as 80 gathered outside the council chambers while the hearing was in session or watched real-time video-feed of the proceedings on a screen inside an adjacent meeting room at the county Legislative Building.

The hearing also drew a presence from the county's top law enforcement officials, with Sheriff Bill Cumming and Undersheriff Jon Zerby attending.

The hearing was preceded by another public hearing involving the Land Bank, in which the council unanimously approved a $350,000 purchase of a 40-acre parcel on the west end of the Beaverton Valley Marsh owned by Sam and Barbara Buck, who, as part of the deal, also donated a conservation easement on an adjoining 3.5-acre parcel of land. The San Juan Preservation Trust is expected to buy the 40 acres from the Land Bank, which will retain a conservation easement on the property, according to Land Bank Director Lincoln Bormann.

Bormann said 150 Nichols St. — called "Brickworks" by its proponents — has become the most picked apart and scrutinized investment the Land Bank has ever considered. He said the historical preservation and conservation easements were revised to the county's benefit — the Ag Guild, as the property's owner, would be required to make $100,000 in improvements in the first 12 months. If those requirements weren't met, the Guild could be forced to sell the property and reimburse the Land Bank for its $400,000 investment, Bormann said.

"I think the Land Bank Commission has done its homework," Sarah Crosby testified.

Still, Peterson said the easements didn't provide enough financial protection for the county. He said the council hadn't been given enough time to evaluate those easements or details of the Land Bank's pending investment since the Town of Friday Harbor pulled out as a prospective partner and state Sen. Kevin Ranker, with support of state representatives Jeff Morris and Dave Quall, then secured $375,000 in state capital funding to replace the town's contribution. That change elevated the Ag Guild as the property's prospective owner.

The Town Council was to contribute $375,000 toward the purchase, and in exchange would have owned the property. But the council backed out because it couldn't get an assurance from the state auditor that the town's use of lodging tax funds for the purchase was legal.

However, the Town Council has expressed its support in another way; it voted to allow the Ag Guild to build a sidewalk out in front of the Brickworks building, at the expense of a couple of parking spaces. The building was built over where the sidewalk should be.

Councilman Peterson, holding up several sheets of paper, said he had more than "20 questions or problems with the easements," but that there was no time for the council to debate them.

Fralick said the project has changed dramatically from what was originally proposed, particularly since the Town of Friday Harbor pulled out as a partner.

"This process has been flawed on a number of fronts," Fralick said.

In the days leading up to the vote, a petition was circulated by an ad hoc group known as Help Sustain The Fairgrounds. The petition called for the Guild's state grant to be used to locate the farmers market at the county fairgrounds.

The group — which, according to local businesswoman Lynn Danaher consists of about 20 community leaders and merchants — believes a year-round farmers market could provide a financial boost to the beleaguered fairgrounds as well as the many vendors of the local farmers' market. The petition signers say they support the farmers market and will continue to do so if the 150 Nichols St. project did not win approval.

However, Ranker said the state funding is earmarked for 150 Nichols St. At the San Juan County Fair, he told an audience in the Ag Tent that a revised funding request would likely not survive the next session, when legislators will be looking for funding for education and other pressing needs.

Supporters of the 150 Nichols St. site say the project will preserve a unique historical site and revitalize the downtown core. The building and one-third acre was historically the site of Friday Harbor Brick and Tile Co., which manufactured blocks used to build many of downtown's oldest buildings, among them Friday Harbor Town Hall.

The Ag Guild hosted a rally and homemade pizza party Sunday at Sweet Earth Farm on San Juan Island, to discuss the next step.

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