Town hall with San Juan County Council Chairman Bill Watson and staff

San Juan County Councilman Bill Watson and staff updated the public about the county’s 2017 accomplishments, as well as information on priority projects for 2018.

“I’m going to run through these pretty quickly, so feel free to stop me with questions,” Watson began.

The town hall forum was April 5, at 5:30 p.m. at the fire station on Mullis Street. Other presenters included Mark Thompson, director of health and community services; Colin Huntemer, San Juan County Public Works engineer; and Erica Shook, director of community development.

It was a busy year, especially on Orcas, said Watson listing the completion of Deer Harbor Bridge, Orcas Park and Ride program and the excitement of having a black bear visitor. The animal was captured without incident and released in a more appropriate location. Lopez saw Odlin Park expand by approximately 100 acres after the county acquired the land adjacent to the park from the Bureau of Land Management. The Friday Harbor Airport now offers the shortest international flight to Victoria British Columbia, Canada, and a new horse barn was constructed at the San Juan County Fairgrounds.

Other year-end highlights mentioned were: approval of the shoreline master program; county-ban of single-use plastic bags; 159 island youth enrolled in 4-H; juvenile court proactively working to ensure kids don’t end up in the justice system; and the county partnering with North Sound Behavioral Health to address the geographical difficulties of a small county made up of islands separated by water in order to get each islander the mental health coverage needed.

Fiscally, San Juan County’s revenue remains strong, according to Watson. He pointed out that most counties receive more income from property tax than sales taxes, but the islands are the opposite; more funds come from sales taxes than property taxes. Given increasing tourism, he explained, this isn’t necessarily bad. However, it is something to monitor since that could change quickly, should something like a recession occur.

Real estate transactions have been going strong, and vacant land has been selling, as well as houses.

“Now I realize it is already April, so my apologies for being three months into the year,” Watson said moving on to the second half of the meeting: 2018 projects.

Affordable housing remains a priority. Thompson explained, in a nutshell, the goal is to increase and maintain the affordable housing stock. The county has been looking into selling off surplus properties to address the situation, such as the 0.8 acres on Lopez. This property is located near Lopez Village, and currently owned by public works. The council would like to sell the lot to a developer who would build and maintain affordable housing units. Read the April 4 article “County Council round-up on housing and property sales.”

“We are not looking to get into the housing business,” Watson said, noting that the county is considering creating public/private partnerships in which a private company would develop and manage affordable housing projects, after either by buying or leasing county land.

Huntemer provided an update on road projects. Work this year will primarily be focused on maintenance, however on San Juan, what has been called the “connector road” began construction last month. This road will connect Pear Point Road, near Jackson Beach, through to Warbass Road. Another project on San Juan is developing a non-motorized path, which would remove pedestrians and bicyclists from the roadway. The path would run adjacent to Cattle Point, Little Road and Bailer Hill. It would then loop to the newly acquired county property at Zylstra Lake and follow Roche Harbor Road back to town. For more info, Huntemer said, contact the San Juan County Parks and Trails Committee.

Shook reported on the progress of the county comprehensive plan. She noted that staff have been going through public comments, and the timeline includes wrapping up the preliminary draft goals and policies by August. The planning commission should have its draft by November, and between December and February, the county council will begin public hearings on that draft.

Questions about the new vacation rental regulations were brought up. Shook explained that the new law makes it is illegal to advertise a vacation rental in the county without a permit. Part of that permit includes providing contact information so someone can be reached quickly about the rental in case of an emergency or complaint.

“You’re letting me off easy,” Watson laughed as the question session opened up and no hands were raised. By 7 p.m. the meeting came to a close.