The Journal's 'Top 10' stories of 2012

 Islanders enjoy a vast display of local art near the entry way of Peace Island Medical Center. - Journal photo / Scott Rasmussen
Islanders enjoy a vast display of local art near the entry way of Peace Island Medical Center.
— image credit: Journal photo / Scott Rasmussen

The top 10 stories of 2012, based on local impact and interest, as determined by the staff of The Journal of the San Juan Islands.

No. 1:

History repeats itself

Only some bells and a few of the whistles remain.

On Nov. 6, San Juan County voters unhinged major planks of the county charter and, in an 180-degree about face, put a decisive end to the reign of a six-person council, its appointed administrator, and to district-only voting for a half-dozen part-time council members as well.

No single issue dominated the Journal opinion pages, or cast a longer shadow over 12 months of the year, than did the review of the county home rule charter or the subsequent changes recommended by the Charter Review Commission. Battle lines arose quickly, and firmly, with many former freeholders, architects of the six-person council, appointed administrator and district-only elections, contesting both the process and the ideas of the CRC. In the other camp, a host of former elected county officials came out in favor of the CRC-endorsed Propositions 1-3.

In the end, voters opted to jettison many of the changes that they themselves ushered in six years earlier, re-bundle as before the executive and legislative branches of county government, and reconstitute the council into three full-time legislators, either elected or defeated through countywide elections.

No. 2:

On time, under budget, Peace Island Medical Center opens for business

Following a mere 18 months of construction, and on the heels of ribbon cutting ceremony and open house that drew nearly half the population of San Juan Island, or so it seemed, the doors of Peace Island Medical Center opened for business for good on Nov. 26. Though not without a few bugs.

PIMC’s Jim Barnhart, chief operating officer, noted some patients experienced “longer than normal” registration times, as their information was loaded into a new system for the first time. Such delays are expected to quickly subside, he said.

Construction of the 10-bed critical access hospital, which features primary care and specialty clinics, a cancer center, expanded diagnostic and treatment services, an operating suite for outpatient procedures and a 24-hour emergency room, proved a boon in difficult economic times for local government coffers, artists and workers in the construction trades. And construction of the $30 million medical center, a collaboration between PeaceHealth, San Juan Island hospital district and San Juan Island Community Foundation’s hospital steering committee, came in on budget and on time.

No. 3:

Islanders say “No” to coal

Friday Harbor High School’s Hall Gym has seen plenty of sizable crowds in its day. But probably none so large, or as vocal, or as single-minded as the 400 or so-plus people who showed up Nov. 3 to let their opposition to the prospects of super-sized cargo carrying shipments of raw coal through the San Juans be known.

Convened by state and federal officials, the meeting was part of the information gathering element for a mandatory environmental impact statement for the controversial Gateway Terminal Project. Proposed by Seattle-based SSA Marine, the terminal, which, if approved, would be built in the industrial area of Cherry Point, just north of Bellingham, would be an export facility for coal mined in the midwest, carried by rail through Washington, and then shipped through the Salish Sea and Juan de Fuca Strait to markets in Asia. At full capacity the terminal would be capable of shipping 48 million tons of coal, with as many as 450 giant cargo ships transiting each year through the San Juans. Given the environmental risks, islanders banded together in saying “No to Coal”.

No. 4:

Signed, sealed, delivered

After nearly seven years of stops, starts, fits and an ever-present tug-of-war, the San Juan County Council voted 5-1 in approving a package of regulatory revisions to the critical areas ordinance.

Councilman Rich Peterson, North San Juan, cast the sole vote in dissent.

Mandated by the state for counties whose long-range planning is dictated by the Growth Management Act, update of the critical areas ordinance, which covers fish and wildlife habitat, wetlands, frequently flooded areas, geologically hazardous areas and aquifer recharge areas, is intended to be done through the use of “best available science” and with no net-loss of functions and values of each. Critics from all corners of the political spectrum contend the council and its staff failed in following either. While the CAO may be approved, the story may be far from over. Legal challenges are expected from the right and possibly the left as well.

No. 5:

Sales tax takes a hike

Despite tough economic times, voters backed a .03 percent increase in the August election, raising the local mark from 7.8 percent to 8.1 percent, and delivering roughly $1 million in new funding to the town and county, combined, as a result. By law, the bulk of the revenue must be used to support law and justice services, or for public projects that increase public safety. The county will receive 60 percent of the total, while the Town of Friday Harbor gains 40 percent.

No. 6:

Broadband Initiative unveiled

In 2012, when Orcas Power and Light Cooperative unveiled its proposal to extend high-speed internet service to 90 percent of San Juan County, several hundred islanders showed up at five community forums to cheer OPALCO on.

A few islanders, however, raised questions at the forums and in letters to the Journal, and current internet providers complained that the proposal would unfairly compete with their services. One current provider, Rick Boucher of Orcas Online was nevertheless optimistic. “We’ll make lemonade out of these lemons,” he said.

OPALCO explained they would extend their present company-operated fiber-optic system across all four ferry-served islands, providing islanders with access to 10 megabyte-per-second internet service and “smart-grid” electricity conservation technology.

Cellphone coverage could be improved if providers utilized some of the 100 or so new fiber-serviced hi-tech towers, according to OPALCO, and radio-coverage “dead zones” which hamper emergency service communications would be virtually eliminated.

All at a cost of less than $18 million, financed in part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture low-interest loan announced in October. OPALCO says the financing would be repaid by Opalco customers at $5-10 per month, and operating costs would be paid by internet subscription fees.

Approval by Opalco’s board is expected early next year, with construction getting underway later in the year. Full deployment of the technology is expected in 2015 or 2016.

No. 7:

Privatization of solid waste hits home

There was a story about solid waste just about every week in 2012, or so it seemed.

After voters in 2011 rejected the county council’s proposed property tax parcel fee to fund solid waste operations and solid waste disposal, the county council at first thought about carrying out its threat to close the three county dumps on Orcas, San Juan and Lopez islands. The Lopez Island Solid Waste Alternatives Project and a vocal group of Orcas and San Juan Island citizens quickly put the kibosh on that idea.

All three islands wanted some kind of transfer or dropbox facility, and interested Lopez and Orcas citizens were especially interested in continuing “reuse, recycle and reduce” programs at their “dumps” - though actual dumping had ceased several years ago.

Lopez Island citizen-activists organized their own solution, convincing the county council to create a “solid waste disposal district” funded by a local property tax ballot proposition that was approved by more than 85 percent of Lopez voters in November.

On Orcas and San Juan islands, Public Works Director Frank Mulcahy issued requests for proposals from potential private operators. Cimarron Trucking, the Anacortes-based company that hauls Orcas trash to the mainland for disposal by Waste Management, seemed the likely winner to take over and operate both stations.

But non-profit Orcas Recycling Services, operator of a reuse program at the Orcas facility, had other ideas. After negotiations for joint Cimarron/ORS operations failed, the council directed Mulcahy to negotiate an operations agreement with ORS.

Operations of the Sutton Road transfer station on San Juan Island followed a somewhat similar path. Cimarron made a bid that seemed to be in the lead, but a joint-venture of “waste-to-energy” company Kentec Energy USA, the American affiliate of Kentec Energy LTD Korea, and Lautenbach Industries, a Skagit County solid waste processor, convinced the county selection committee and the council to choose their “total waste” approach.

Final contracts are being negotiated, with transfer of operations to private hands expected within 90 days.

No. 8:

Death of L-112 unexplained

Too soon to tell.”

Those were the words of federal officials, who, following a battery of tests performed early in the year, remained circumspect as to the cause of death of a 3-year-old killer whale whose battered and bloodied carcass washed up on the outer coast of Washington state, just north of Long Beach, in mid-February.

By that time, however, orca advocates had already seized upon a likely culprit in the death of what had otherwise been a healthy juvenile female: sonar. More specifically, they pointed to sonar exercises conducted by the Canadian Navy at a time that coincided with the presence of a sizable group of orcas traveling in the waters of both Haro and Juan de Fuca straits.

The familiar sound of sonar pings were recorded on a network of hydrophones, which stretch from the westside of San Juan Island to Neah Bay, on the outer coast, about four days before the body of L-112, also known as “Victoria” and as “Sooke”, was discovered on the southern coastal beach. In addition, according to those monitoring the hydrophones, those pings were preceded by a series of four “explosions or implosions”, the source of which remain unexplained.

While biologists found no tell-tale signs of broken bones or fractures in the animal’s skull, they did find signs of trauma within the tissues near the rear of its jaw, an area where a killer whale draws in air.

While the cause its death may forever remain a mystery, L-112’s skeleton will soon be on display for all to see. It was donated to the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, where it is expected to be focal point of a new exhibit sometime in the near future.

No. 9:

Unrest rises over PeaceHealth potential partnership

The heralded opening of the impressive new PeaceIsland Hospital and Medical Center in November was preceded in September and October by questions from women concerned about provision of reproductive health care services at the new Catholic Church-connected San Juan Island health care facilities.

The concerns were raised in June when Catholic Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle suggested that Peace Hospital in Bellingham cease performing medical tests for the Bellingham women’s health care clinic operated by Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood, which is also active in Skagit and San Juan counties.

Tensions increased in August when Peace Health Systems, Inc., announced they were considering an association with the Franciscan Health System, which is owned by Catholic Health Initiatives of Denver, Colo. CHI, the second largest operator of Catholic hospitals in the country, reports on its website that it follows the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services promulgated by U.S. Catholic bishops.

Local activist Monica Harrington and Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood CEO Linda McCarthy organized the Coalition for Healthcare Transparency and Equity and presented their concerns about reproductive health care services to the San Juan County Hospital Commission in October.

Local Peace Island executives and the Hospital Commission assured the community that all women’s health services, including contraception, provided by the InterIsland Medical Center would be provided by its successor, PeaceIsland Medical Center. Neither InterIsland nor PeaceIsland has or will provide  abortions under any circumstances.

The fall furor has subsided in the glow of PeaceIsland Hospital’s opening, but the issues of the bishops’ directives and the Peace Health-CHI merger remain.

No. 10:

Breakout year for Brickworks

The rehabilitation of the Brickworks, including the 2012 success of the Farmer’s Market and the community support for the remodel of the historic structure, is our No. 10 story for 2012.

Success, it seems, has bred success. Local and off-island sources are contributing generously to the debt-retirement and the remodeling cost, including the dedication of $100,000 of Hotel-Motel Tax money to the Brickworks on a matching basis and two other major matching donations, all of which suggests that the Agricultural Guild fundraising goals will be met.

The big success for the Brickworks was seen in the large crowds attending, and spending at, the Saturday Farmers’ Market. The crowded Farmers’ Market was mirrored by active, busy shops and restaurants in town, just as the Tuesday night music and the Thursday night Art Market also brought shoppers and diners onto Nichols Street and nearby stores and restaurants.

The Brickworks and its events were part of many good stories in 2012, and a 2013 unveiling of the remodeled building should make for more good stories.

Plus one:

Local voters back liberal measures in big way

San Juan County voters came out in strong numbers this election season. Turnout was 89 percent – the highest in the state. Auditor Milene Henley said that three significant charter propositions, three council member elections, a local citizen initiative about GMOs, and the state referendum on same-sex marriage all helped to turn out the vote.

Island voters played an important role in passing those measures.

Results were close for Referendum 74, legalizing gay marriage: 54 percent of state voters approved the measure. In San Juan County, it was overwhelmingly approved, by 71 percent. Washington voters also passed I-502 legalizing recreational use of marijuana. It passed with 68 percent support in San Juan County, largest margin in the state.



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