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Top 10 of 2010: The stories that we will remember

The Dec. 29 Journal of the San Juan Islands features the Top 10 Stories of 2010 and the first in a series of forecasts for 2011. The Dec. 29 edition is available on newsstands and in stores. For convenient home delivery, call 378-5696 or e-mail fbacon@sanjuanjournal.com - Page designed by Richard Walker
The Dec. 29 Journal of the San Juan Islands features the Top 10 Stories of 2010 and the first in a series of forecasts for 2011. The Dec. 29 edition is available on newsstands and in stores. For convenient home delivery, call 378-5696 or e-mail fbacon@sanjuanjournal.com
— image credit: Page designed by Richard Walker

The top 10 stories of 2010, based on local impact and interest, as determined by the staff of The Journal of the San Juan Islands.

No. 1: Consolidation of island, town fire departments
The Friday Harbor Town Council contracted on Nov. 18 with Fire District 3 for fire protection services within the town limits. The contract is interim; both sides are working together to determine the best way to consolidate the departments.

Consolidation of the departments had long been a contentious issue. The town studied the issue in the 1990s, and determined there wouldn’t be enough savings to warrant consolidation. At the time, the town department, founded in 1909, was seen as more skilled in urban firefighting, the district department in rural firefighting. During David Jones’ mayoralty (2006-09), a blue ribbon task force determined that there wasn’t enough benefit to the town to warrant consolidation.

However, town and district fire officials worried about inconsistencies that they felt could be dangerous. Both departments had mutual aid agreements and responded jointly to fires. But the departments didn’t train together regularly. Standard operating procedures were different. Radios were not compatible.

“The important thing is that they use the same procedures, that they talk the same talk, that they properly answer the alarm when it rings,” District Fire Chief Steve Marler said.

The town is paying the district $8,000 a month for fire protection service. The next step: Determining the best way to consolidate the departments, either by contract or annexing the town into the fire district.

No. 2: Town fire chief suspended, resigns
Friday Harbor Fire Chief Vern Long was suspended for two days on Aug. 16 after published photos showed a firefighter without proper gear battling a car fire, under the chief’s supervision. Long went on medical leave Aug. 18 and resigned Oct. 18. He received a severance package worth $21,482.

Before his suspension, four fire officers and a firefighter resigned, questioning Long’s leadership ability. In an unrelated action, Acting Fire Chief Tom Eades announced his retirement. The leadership gap and decimated ranks helped spur consolidation talks with Fire District 3 and an interim agreement for fire protection services was approved Nov. 18.

No. 3: First new sheriff in 24 years
Sheriff’s Deputy Rob Nou was elected the first new sheriff of San Juan County in 24 years on Nov. 2. He takes office Jan. 10 and succeeds William G. Cumming, who is retiring.

It was a campaign between two candidates with similar backgrounds and similar take on the issues: Deputy Nou and Lead Detective Brent Johnson. But in the end, voters apparently made their choice based on type of experience: Nou had served as an administrative sergeant in two rural counties in Oregon, served as a small-city police chief and 911 administrator, and graduated from the FBI National Academy. Johnson had served as an administrative sergeant in urban Albuquerque, N.M. before joining the local department.

Nou’s win was a landslide: 5,652 to 2,950, or 65.71 to 34.29 percent.

No. 4: Ag Guild buys ‘Brickworks’
The San Juan Islands Agricultural Guild on Nov. 1 purchased 150 Nichols St., the last industrial site in Friday Harbor, for a year-round farmers market and events center.

The purchase was a culmination of efforts by the ag community to establish a permanent year-round marketplace in downtown. In 2007, efforts through the local Grange to establish a farmers market in the Grange-owned Carquest building failed. 150 Nichols St. topped the list of possible sites, and the Ag Guild received a $375,000 state grant and a $99,990 USDA grant toward the $775,000 purchase. The Ag Guild proposed partnering with the Town of Friday Harbor, using lodging tax funds, and San Juan County, using Land Bank funds, but town and county officials backed out, citing risk.

Still, support ran high in the community. An event Sept. 12 raised $36,000, and then the Ag Guild received a $300,000 loan, for a total of $810,990. Remodeling of the former Friday Harbor Brick and Tile building began before Thanksgiving.

No. 5: Recycling fees imposed for first time
The days of free recycling came to an end in 2010.

The county’s first-ever charge on recycling, a flat $5 fee that applied only when recyclables are disposed by themselves and without regard to volume, went into effect in October.

Then, in early December, the County Council approved a three-tiered package of fees — $5, $25, $50 — to bolster the bottom line of the Solid Waste Division, a $2 million-plus yearly enterprise.

The new recycling fees, which affect self-haulers and go into effect Jan. 1, are expected to generate $400,000 to $500,000 over the next 12 months.

The county Solid Waste Division, financed mostly by tipping fees, the price one pays to dispose of garbage, has struggled to cover expenses in the wake of a two-year decline in the amount of garbage it collects. Solid Waste will dispose of roughly 4,000 fewer tons of garbage this year than it did just three years ago.

No. 6: Land acquired, annexed for Peace Island Medical Center
PeaceHealth finalized the purchase of 22 acres for the proposed Peace Island Medical Center, Sept. 30. The Friday Harbor Town Council had annexed the area into the town limits in July.

PeaceHealth said funding for the land purchase at 1049 San Juan Valley Road was made possible through a $1.2 million grant received Sept. 24 from the San Juan Island Community Foundation. The property was purchased from the Boe family.

The medical center will be located at 1049 San Juan Valley Road, adjacent to Friday Harbor Airport. It will feature an expanded primary care and specialty clinic, an expanded diagnostic services center, a 24-hour emergency room, and a 10-bed critical access hospital.

The $1.2 million presented to PeaceHealth represented funds received to date out of more than $8 million pledged. Peace Island Medical Center is expected to cost $30 million; the San Juan Community Hospital Committee is raising through philanthropy one-third of the cost, PeaceHealth is paying the other two-thirds. San Juan County Public Hospital District No. 1, which will close Inter Island Medical Center when Peace Island opens but will continue to operate San Juan EMS, will contribute a little over $1 million a year in property tax revenues for 50 years to subsidize medical care.

Proponents said Peace Island was on track to open and accept its first patient in August 2012.

No. 7: Colton Harris-Moore arrested in the Bahamas
Colton Harris-Moore, the alleged Barefoot Burglar, was arrested July 11 in the Bahamas.

Harris-Moore, 19, of Camano Island, is suspected of committing burglaries and thefts in several Washington counties as well as Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and the Bahamas over the course of two years. His alleged crime spree in San Juan County included the theft of planes and boats and breaking into Orcas Island businesses. He is known as the “Barefoot Bandit” because he is believed to have been barefoot during his suspected crimes on Orcas Island; at one business, he allegedly left chalk drawings of footprints.

Orcas Island was the site of late-night helicopter searches and canine dog hunts, as local, state, and federal authorities combed the San Juans for search of the elusive teen. Harris-Moore’s presence on Orcas caused business owners to install alarms, carry guns, and look over their shoulders at night. Orcas Island was featured on several national news programs, both before and after Harris-Moore’s arrest.

The Camano Island teen was indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle on Nov. 10 on five criminal counts. Only one of the charges relates to crimes committed in San Juan County. His federal trial is set for July 11.

No. 8: Proposed Subway franchise spurs town look at restrictions
A proposed Subway franchise, reported on Oct. 7 on SanJuanJournal.com, spurred more online comments than stories about the race for county sheriff, controversies in the town fire department, and consolidation of the town and district fire departments.

In the story, Pat O’Day — real estate agent and rock radio pioneer — and his attorney wife Stephanie confirmed they were looking for a site for a Subway franchise. Among the sites considered at the time: 310 Spring St., the former Creme Brulee site.

The news spurred an anti-franchise petition drive by a local restaurant. Some islanders have expressed concern about the quality of food served at franchises, as well as the impact on local businesses and the streetscape. The Town Council discussed possible restrictions on food franchises, assigning the Planning Commission to study the issue and make recommendations.

About 22 cities across the U.S. have laws that restrict the number of formula retail stores and/or restaurants that can locate in their jurisdictions

No. 9: Plan to remove rabbits from American Camp put on hold
The National Park Service announced Sept. 24 it will work with rabbit advocates, Fish and Wildlife officials and tribal government representatives to “find common goals and a common solution” in managing the rabbit population on the American Camp prairie.

San Juan Island National Historical Park officials the park will “take no action to implement the preferred alternative” — to remove the rabbits by shooting – contained in the environmental assessment of the prairie restoration plan.

“We need to have some open discussion and educate people and rebuild some relationships,” said Jerald Weaver, chief of integrated resources at the local national park.

A group of rabbit advocates, calling themselves Save Our Bunnies, protested the rabbit eradication plan as inhumane. They argued that the rabbits, imported here as a food source in the 1880s or 1890s, were as much a part of island history as the joint military occupation.

But National Park officials say one of the reasons the rabbits need to be removed from the prairie is that their burrowing disrupts “cultural resources.” Park officials also say the rabbits destroy native grasses and plants that provide habitat for sensitive species, among them a butterfly once thought extinct.

“The American Camp prairie is one of the last surviving natural prairies in the Northern Straits and Puget Sound regions,” according to the national park.

James Hillaire, historic preservation officer of the Lummi Indian Nation, said in an earlier interview that the American Camp prairie is a village site.

Weaver said the national park will consider some new alternatives for managing the rabbits, but “limiting their movement across the prairie” will have to be part of the solution.

No. 10: Friday Harbor girls basketball team wins first league title in 26 years
The Friday Harbor Wolverines’ 41-27 win over Mount Vernon Christian on Feb. 12 will likely stand as one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of local high school sports.

The team, after a four-year odyssey at the bottom of the league, catapulted out of the cellar to clinch its first outright league championship in more than two decades. And they did it in style, winning 11 consecutive league games after opening league play with a double-digit loss at La Conner. They would avenge that defeat by dealing the Braves, the defending Northwest 1A/2B League champ, a double-digit loss of their own. And for the first time in recent memory they defeated Orcas on the road and at home — in overtime — to sweep the two-game season series from their inter-island rival.

The Wolverines tallied as many league wins in the 2009-10 season as in the past three combined, finishing a 12-game league schedule at 11-1.

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