Council discusses Friday Harbor House expansion

American Legion members, Whale Museum staff, and island residents packed the Town Council chambers on June 20, to participate in a public hearing regarding the expansion of the Friday Harbor House. Community Development Director Ryan Ericson began the hearing by discussing his staff report.

“This hearing is just about the Development Agreement. This is not a full review,” he explained.

The agreement includes variances on the height of the building, lot coverage, and setbacks. While project specifics including a SEPA review and construction permits still need to be addressed, Ericson’s staff report recommended approval for the Development Agreement.

The Friday Harbor House expansion proposal includes an additional seven rooms, an expanded conference room, underground parking below The Whale Museum, and a sidewalk along the left-hand side of Front Street. Outlook Park, located between the Friday Harbor House and Vinnies would also get a makeover with a stairway down to Front Street, designed with viewing platforms. Designers offered that the building upgrade, the stairway, and the sidewalk would benefit the community. The proposed variance would maintain a view corridor, and setbacks would allow visitors to see the Whale Museum’s murals, just not as easily as they can now.

Long-time islander Jerad Chambers wondered “where the [hotel’s expansion] water was going to come from, let alone the numbers of additional workers, and whether they would be paying them $35 an hour so they could afford to live on the island.” He also made mention of the island’s housing crisis.

While he agreed that the building needed a remodel, he encouraged them to “stay within their current footprint.”

Several members of the American Legion Post 163 offered their thoughts on the proposed development. Vice Commander Kris Kline noted that they had taken litigation against a similar plan in 2001, that was later settled out of court.

“This [newest proposal] violates the spirit of the View Protection Corridor,” he said, “I strongly urge you to reject the Development Agreement.”

Legion member Mike Galligher asked how much Friday Harbor House contributed to the community, adding that the Legion has given scholarships to local high school students for decades, and participates in local events. Gallagher also noted he was confused by the drawings. “[They don’t give any perception] of how it will affect the view, or shadow the building,” he said.

The Whale Museum’s Board President and Interim Director, Rich Osborne, expressed concern over several issues.

Not only would the Whale Museum lose its views, but the historic building would likely be rattled during construction, damaging not only the museum itself but exhibits as well. The orca skeleton, for example, which has hung from the ceiling since the ‘70s, could fall to the floor and be destroyed.

“I urge you,” Osborne concluded,” do not approve this at this point.”

Once public testimony was closed, the council began to comment.

“I appreciate what The Friday Harbor House does for the community,” Council member Mason Turnage said, adding that he felt conflicted.

“I worked there. I’ve seen the lifestyle of the employees that work there. I don’t think they are prepared for this kind of expansion.” Chambers’ comments regarding housing resonated with him.

”Blocking the views was a mistake, and construction for the building was concerning,” he offered.

Council member Anna Maria de Freitas brought the focus back to the Development Agreement and the three variance issues at hand and reminded the council and attendees there would be opportunities to address the other issues.

“It could be worse,” Council member Richard Geffen began. “But I am concerned about the building being too high and infringing on surrounding organizations.”

Council member Steve Hushebeck told the crowd he appreciated the comments from the community, as well as the staff report. In general the pros, he felt, outweighed the cons, citing underground parking.

“It would get all that parking off the streets,” he said, “and leave more spaces for residents.”

Council member Barb Starr noted she also felt conflicted.

“There should be harmony with the existing businesses. It bothers me that the murals on the side of The Whale Museum will be blocked, that the Friday Harbor House assumes that their access to the view is more important,” Starr said.

“I feel they have done a poor job working with the community. In Seattle, no one asks where you are going to find workers. Here, you do because it’s an island.”

Starr also noted that in the original agreement, the town had with the Friday Harbor House Outlook Park stretched in front of the hotel. But, people began getting chased away from that area by staff members because they were not paying customers.

“I’m concerned this kind of thing could happen again.”

With several council members conflicted over the proposed agreement, the vote was unanimous to continue the discussion at the July 18 meeting.