Top 10 stories of 2011 (plus one)

The Journal staff looks back on stories that made a difference in 2011 - Journal photos
The Journal staff looks back on stories that made a difference in 2011
— image credit: Journal photos

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. We begin with…

No. 10: Consolidation complete

The debate over the benefits and drawbacks of San Juan Island’s two fire departments becoming one had long been a contentious issue. But by the time the two entities put pen to paper, in June and in August, and the Town of Friday Harbor officially handed over its future fire protection to San Juan Island Fire Department, the resolution of that decades’ long tug-of-war barely caused a ripple.

Under the agreement, ratified June 2, the town, which now retains a fire department in name only, will pay San Juan Island Fire Department roughly $250,000 a year for fire protection. That’s equivalent to what the department, a junior taxing district, would receive if it’s property-tax levy applied within the town’s boundaries. The two entities also struck an agreement that the town will lease and part with its fire fighting equipment, two fire engines, the fire boat Confidence and assorted gear.

While the agreement is slated to expire in 2015, town and fire department officials have their sights set on asking voters to decide sometime in the near future whether the town should be annexed into the fire district’s boundaries.

No. 9: PeaceHealth breaks ground on hospital construction

Several hundred people braved the hot mid-afternoon sun to take part in and to bear witness to the groundbreaking ceremony of the new Peace Island Medical Center, a $30 million project. Senator Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen were among the many politicians, dignitaries, local supporters and company officials from PeaceHealth who attended July 23 historic event.

Located a stone’s throw from Friday Harbor Airport, on the site of the ol’ Boe family farm, Peace Island Medical Center will feature an expanded clinic, 24-hour emergency room, a 10-bed inpatient critical access hospital, advanced diagnostic center, an outpatient surgery facility and a cancer and chronic disease center with on-island chemotherapy. When its doors open (construction is expected to be complete by December 2012) Peace Island Medical Center will replace and assume the role played by the 38-year-old Inter Island Medical Center.

In late October, the Community Foundation announced it had raised $10 million in donations, which it will contribute to the hospital project.

No. 8: Town Administrator King Fitch submits his resignation

About 30 years ago King Fitch and his wife, Pam, were smitten by the beauty of the San Juans while on vacation. The Fitchs decided that’s where they belonged. So when they returned to California, they packed their belongings and moved to San Juan.

Not everything went as expected. But the Fitchs persevered and in 1987, King Fitch, working part-time as a building inspector, was asked to become town administrator. And he did.

After 24 years at the helm, Fitch on Sept. 23 submitted his resignation. In June, he’ll step down from the post he held for 25 years at the age of 65 and with the single-longest running tenure of any town administrator in Washington state.

(This summer, Fitch will hand over the reins to Duncan Wilson, administrator of the city of North Bend.)

No. 7: Distance doubles between boats and orcas

A new set of federal rules went into effect in May prohibiting all types of boats including kayaks, from approaching any orca closer than 200 yards, and from intercepting an orca or positioning in its path. That’s twice the distance previously allowed.

Federal officials contend doubling the distance will reduce disturbance boats have on the Southern resident killer whales, three closely-related orca clans that frequent the San Juans, generally in summer. The Southern residents were declared endangered in 2005, and vessel disturbance has been identified as one of three chief causes threatening the population’s survival, along with lack of prey and pollutants.

Some contend the rules don’t go far enough. Others maintain orcas benefit little from them. For Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, whose has kept track of the Southern residents for more than 30 years, the key to the population’s health is simple.

“The main thing is food,” he said. “They don’t come here to just look at people.”

No. 6: San Juan son drowns in popular island swimming hole

At 20 years old, Landis Pederson appeared to be the picture of health, which made his drowning on the evening of Aug. 8 perhaps that much more difficult to fathom.

A Friday Harbor High School graduate, Class of 2009, Pederson separated himself from a group of friends while swimming at Lawson’s Pond, on West Valley Road, and then went missing. Unable to locate him after searching the area, Pederson’s friends notified authorities, who also searched the lake and surrounding area late into the night, but without success.

Assisted by a specially trained cadaver dogs, divers located Pederson’s body the following day, about 15 feet below the lake’s surface and about 175 feet from the shore. An autopsy later determined Pederson died of asphyxiation and that his death was accidental.

“We may never really know what happened,” Sheriff Rob Nou said. “Sometimes tragic things happen that are hard to explain.”

No. 5: Prop. 2 dumped; Prop. 1 squeaks by

In the end, the County Council asked voters to tip the scales on the fate of the county’s solid waste operation. When the final count was tallied from the Nov. 8 election, voters dumped Proposition 2 like a hot potato, tossing aside the proposed funding measure with a 68-percent margin of defeat.

In the aftermath of the election, the county rolled out its backup plan, aka “Plan B,” which sets the stage for the county franchise hauler to expand curbside collection of garbage, and perhaps recycling, and allows the three transfer stations to be leased by a private enterprise, or public entity.

Meanwhile, election results appear more clouded for Proposition 1. In spite of its victory at the polls, the San Juan County Land Bank emerged from the Nov. 8 election with a bit of a public relations problem on its hands.

While voters granted a 12-year extension of the Land Bank’s principal funding source, a 1 percent tax on local real estate sales, paid by the buyer, they did so in far fewer numbers than before. Prop. 1 passed with a 52.8 percent margin of victory.

Critics claimed that in recent years the Land Bank has veered from preserving open space and pursued projects that benefit the few at expense of the many. Others insisted enough open space has been set aside and that the Land Bank, in tough economic times like these, should get by with less.

In contrast, supporters argued that the Land Bank, because of its ability to conserve open space and cultural resources, benefits the islands’ environment and its economy, helps maintain a rural landscape that both islanders and visitors enjoy, and, with only 3 percent of county land preserved as open space, its job is far from complete.

No. 4: Relocation request denied

At the start of the year, few knew the name David Franklin Stewart.

But by mid-March, David Franklin Stewart, a Level 3 sex offender, classified as such because experts believe he’s likely to reoffend, was no longer a stranger. Nor were his crimes and request to relocate to San Juan Island. In fact, the 58-year-old convicted child-rapist catapulted from obscurity to the front page of local and regional news media once that request became known.

Islanders turned out in force to demonstrate against his request.

In the end, Stewart’s request to move to his San Juan Island home was denied on March 16.

No. 3: Dogs off leash prompt arrests at National Parks’ American Camp

It started off slowly. A warning here, a reprimand there. A warning sign or two.

But after heated confrontations over dogs off-leash prompted the arrest of two San Juan Island men, and a pair of rented scooters were seized, and surveillance cameras were installed and signs popped up noting offenders can be fined thousands of dollars, islanders were up in arms over what appeared to be a new regimen of law enforcement at South Beach and American Camp.

At the center of the storm stood National Parks Service Ranger Barry Lewis, who joined San Juan Island National Historical Park at the beginning of the year.

Compliance would come at a cost. Critics called the Parks Services’ tactics heavy-handed. Some vowed to never return. Others said Lewis didn’t belong. Meanwhile, Parks Service officials maintained that protection of cultural, historical and natural resources depended on enforcement of park regulations.

While both would later admit they erred in not leashing their dogs, the two men object to how they were treated. One settled out of court by paying a fee. The other, following a trial in federal court in Bellingham, was found guilty of having a dog off leash and interfering with an officer, and fined $1.

No. 2: Storm of discontent follows principal’s resignation

Gary Pflueger handed in his resignation on Jan. 5, insisting it was “his decision” to part ways with San Juan Island School District.

“Part of my decision is that we have a difference of opinion about the instructional leadership at the school,” said Pflueger, former Friday Harbor Elementary School principal. “The board wants something else and I think on that point we respectfully agree to disagree.”

What followed were three months of heated debate over that “disagreement” and a full-scale turf battle over the leadership of the district. Parents, teachers and islanders rallied in support of popular principal, often pleading — often demanding — that the school board reverse its decision to accept Pflueger’s resignation. The board, which also had its backers, didn’t budge.

It did reprimand the district’s superintendent, Rick Thompson, for misrepresenting a research paper, authored as a graduate student some 20 years ago, as a master thesis. It also hired a law firm to defend itself for a looming face-off in court.

The maelstrom culminated in a “recall” effort targeting all five members of the school board. The recall petition, filed by Nick Powers, accused the board of violating the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, as well as other indiscretions and failures. The petition failed to gain the backing required for a recall election, as Superior Court Judge Don Eaton ruled March 28 that it lacked the legal and factual basis to support its allegations.

In June, Pflueger’s three-year term at the elementary school came to an end.

No. 1: Heinous crime hits home


It’s a word not commonly heard, and almost impossible to fathom.

But as the bewildering, horrific events of April 3 unraveled, there would be no ignoring the fact that a 15-year-old San Juan Island boy bludgeoned his mother to death and then set their Friday Harbor home ablaze with intent of covering up the crime.

That plan failed. Taylor Hammel was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and arson. He turned 16 while awaiting trial in a juvenile detention facility. Given the violent nature surrounding his mother’s death, prosecutors sought to try the boy as an adult.

At 49, Sharon Hammel was well respected and  popular employee of the town of Friday Harbor. She moved to San Juan Island, a single mother with a 5-year-old son, in 2001 and developed a sizable circle of friends. As lead caretaker of the town Parks department, she decorated, cultivated and maintained the many hanging flower baskets that adorned the town, and her handiwork and sunny disposition made a lasting impression.

On Nov. 9, under a negotiated agreement, Taylor pleaded guilty to murder, as a juvenile, and to arson, as an adult. Under the sentence handed down by Superior Court Judge Don Eaton, the 16-year-old will serve five years in a juvenile detention facility, the maximum allowed by state law, and then, at the age of 21, he will be transferred to a state prison designed for adults, where he will serve two years.

In handing down the sentence, Eaton echoed the reasoning of prosecutors and Taylor’s attorneys, noting that serving five years in juvenile detention would offer the teen the “maximum time to for treatment and to mature”, before he’s immersed in a prison populated by adults.


The plus one: Trail ends for “Barefoot Bandit”

For the sake of brevity, we won’t recount why Colton Harris-Moore, aka the “Barefoot Bandit”, made the Journal’s Top Ten story list first in 2009 and then again in 2010. It appears, however, that 2011 will be the last. Harris-Moore, now 20, pleaded guilty in an Island County courtroom Dec. 16 to 33 offenses stemming from a two-year crime spree. That includes 17 counts from San Juan County. He was sentenced to seven years and three months in prison, and has vowed to compensate his victims by selling the rights to his story. A book and a movie are in the works. He is slated to be sentenced in federal court in January on a series of federal offenses.

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