The Town of Friday Harbor Council has squashed potential plans for the island’s former skilled nursing facility to be turned into a hotel.
On May 17 the Town of Friday Harbor Council voted 4-1 to deny rezoning the property to accommodate a potential buyer interested in opening a hotel and the decision was finalized at the June 7 meeting.
Last March, the owner of the now-shuttered Life Care Center property requested a rezone change, but the possible lodging plans had locals questioning whose needs the town is serving — islanders or tourists.
According to a town report, staff and council received 18 letters against the rezone and none for it. The majority of the commenters noted that town officials should choose to benefit locals by replacing the Life Care Center, and not accommodate tourists who frequent the picturesque islands.
“Our local population desperately needs a convalescent center right here on the island, far more than we need more hotel rooms,” wrote Kerry Hartjen of Friday Harbor.
“Do we find a way to reopen the Life Care Center or do we give up, re-zone and make the facility a new hotel?” asked Shelley Alan of the town.
“It appears that accommodating more tourists is viewed more important than the needs, both present and future, of local community members,” wrote Friday Harbor’s Deb Langhans.
Despite the community’s input, the question before the council was not whether a hotel should be built on the property or if a skilled nursing home should return. The question was, would it best for the community to have the property zoned commercial, versus its current zoning.
The roughly 2 1/2 acres, which houses four buildings, has been on the market since last January and is in a non-residential, professional services zone. Generally, that means people cannot solely live in structures on the property and buildings can only be used for offices.
The owner requested the property be rezoned to commercial, which could include businesses like hotels or retail stores. However, information about a potential buyer interested in opening a hotel was not part of the application.
Stephanie O’Day, the attorney representing the owner of Life Care Centers of America, explained that, despite residents’ hopes, another local skilled nursing facility would likely never return. Maintaining the current zoning, she said, would not ensure another medical provider would take over the property.
“By denying the rezone, you’re not going to get [Life Care] back,” she said.
Todd Fletcher, vice president of western operations for Life Care Centers of America, also spoke at the May 17 meeting. He failed to sell the San Juan branch of the national company along with the property, before the business folded, due to the inability to gain profits. In the final years, he said, the company lost up to $1.2 million annually.
In the end, said Fletcher, the company wasn’t measuring success on profits, but smaller portions of loss.
“It was ‘how good are the bad months?’ because every month was red,” he said.
For almost two decades, the Life Care Center of the San Juan Islands offered 24-hour nursing, and served patients with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and provided inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation.
A task force has been researching how to bring the services offered at the skilled nursing facility back to the islands, but chairman Evan Perrollaz, who is also the director of Village at the Harbour, told the Journal that an identical facility as the Life Care Center is not in the cards.
“The Life Care format is outdated. Everyone wants to think it’s a unique situation here and it’s not,” said Perrollaz about the facility’s closure. “I cannot see any person in their right mind looking at this business model and thinking ‘yeah, we should open that’ [on the island.]”
Instead, the task force is looking into possibly using other models, including what he called “micro-nursing homes,” where about 10 people live in a facility that provides similar services that Life Care did. The smaller capacity would drive costs down, he explained, compared to Life Care’s 85 beds.
Perrollaz said he was not sure what zoning models like “micro-nursing homes,” would need, but said some communities have been built them in residential areas, similar to adult family homes, like Hearthstone on San Juan.
Town councilman Tim Daniels was the sole vote against denying the rezone petition because he said a commercial property in that location would align with the town’s current zoning continuity, as the property is surrounded by other commercial lots.
“I don’t see where we as a council can deny this application other than because of public sentiment,” he said at the May 17 council meeting.
Councilman Noel Monin suggested the board wait to make a decision on the rezone to see if the property could sell under the current zoning.
Town councilwoman Anna Maria de Freitas, who also owns a local lodging business, noted that there are several empty buildings in commercial zones in town.
One such example is the former Inter Island Medical Center building, next to the property in question, which has been on the market since 2013 and rezoned by the council from professional services to commercial after its closure.
Councilwoman de Freitas also explained that the rezone decision will affect how the town grows in the future, including how an increase in tourists and residents would impact town infrastructure like utilities.
“I think it’s our role as a council to manage growth and do it in a sustainable way; we are on an island,” she said. “The decision we make now really impacts generations down the road.”
Read the staff report for the May 17 meeting below.
Rezone application report by the Town of Friday Harbor staff: