A trail proposed from Friday Harbor to Zylstra Lake has been a contentious issue not just for farmers and property owners in San Juan Valley, but for the residents of San Juan Island. The trail, which is to be a multi-use paved trail, was put on the draft Six Year Transportation Improvement Program. A public hearing regarding adding the trail was held on Nov. 7 before the San Juan County Council.
“To be clear, the details are still in the works,” San Juan County Public Works staff member Mackenzie Sims explained to the packed council room, clarifying that just because it is the first thing listed on the TIP does not mean it is the number one priority.
“If projects are not yet planned, or understood for that matter, why does it get put on the TIP?” San Juan Island Council member Christine Minney asked.
“We understand the scope and need, but the details still to be worked out,” Sims replied. “[These projects] were determined by council. We didn’t just make them up.”
Because the details of the trail are yet to be determined, the description on the TIP was vague. Sims cited the intent as being to increase pedestrian and bike traffic to Zylstra Lake.
Of the dozens of islanders who spoke during public testimony, none spoke in favor of the trial, and only one thanked council and public works staff for considering trails and similar projects in the plan.
“[The survey] asked the question, “Do you like trails?’ That’s like asking if you like puppies, right? If you asked the question if the trail went on and took away private property, they would not have taken that puppy,” said Michelle Loftus during public access time. Loftus owns property in the area with livestock. She added that she consistently finds trash on her property, including plastic baggies. The trail, she said, “is not enough to risk my livestock or my privacy.”
Guard Sundstrom was the first to testify. He comes from a long line of farmers who have worked the land in San Juan Valley.
“You don’t make much money farming,” Sundstrom said, adding it’s about taking care of the animals and the land. Farming is a lifestyle. With luck, the land of his ancestors, and San Juan Valley, he could provide food, wool and hay for at least a portion of the island population for generations.
Steve Hudson, another long-time islander, noted that the trail was listed by Rick Larson’s office as a critical need. “I disagree. It’s catering to the needs of those who do not live here at the expense of those who do,” he said, noting that roads need maintenance, but trails will not contribute to making them better, and won’t serve those who live on San Juan and use the roads. “We are moving way too fast in the wrong direction. We don’t want to be Martha’s Vinyard. We want to be San Juan Island. If you look at your guiding principles, you will see that preserving the nature and culture of the islands is a priority, and serving the citizens is part of your oath of office,” Hudson said in closing.
Becky Sundstrom Shanks, who also stems a generation of island farmers, read a letter from her cousin Besty Sundstrom. Besty lives in the vicinity of the proposed trail.
“Is it the best idea?” she asked in her letter. “I love and appreciate the [Zylstra Lake] Land Bank trail, but it is not one tourist come to experience, in my opinion…it will disturb historic farmland, and possibly take out incredible long-standing fir trees… trees that have stood strong since the 1800s.” Historic farmlands are being traded for tourism it seems, she added.
Lisa Crosby Guard stated she was born down the road from the current County Legislative Building. Her family has lived and farmed the island for generations. “I am concerned about the environmental impact of a ten-foot-wide paved trail,” She said, noting that transparency has also been an issue. “One minute, we are hearing it is going by the road, the next there are rumors it will go through the Valley. My guess is you are going to try to go through The Preservation Trust and Land Bank land because that will be easier. Have you looked at what Doddie and Ernie Gann asked for? They asked for preservation for agriculture.”
Crosby Guard also stated that she was concerned for her livestock and wondered what might happen if e-bikes or dogs came through their pastures. “By asking for this trail, you are telling farmers you don’t want us,” she said, ending her testimony.
San Juan islander Steve Ulvi began by saying it was good to see everyone, and that people being engaged and the council listening to their testimony is how the process is supposed to work. “I’m a trails guy,” he said, adding that he also likes farms, appreciates and respects multi-generational farming families, and has a planning background. “But this trail is flawed. It said it would be done in a road corridor, but [the plans] have not been consistent. This idea has way too much baggage and it’s confusing,” Ulvi concluded by encouraging council members to think hard about including it in the TIP.
Marylin O’Connor objected to the inclusion of the trail as well. “Before, there would have been workshops with the public and the project would be carefully described and communicated to the public,” she said. Rather than a trail, O’Conner suggested reducing speed in areas heavily used by bikes to improve safety.
“Two thoughts occur to me as I listen to the comments. We have a responsibility to preserve historic farmland and our agricultural history on this island. Having a trail going down through it is like suburbia and is not what this island needs,” Emily Geyman, retired Friday Harbor High School guidance counselor, said. While many towns have been overwhelmed by tourism, growth and sprawl, Friday Harbor has done well to preserve the boundary between the town and country, she added. Geyman also wondered if a bridge would need to be built over wetlands near the PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center, and what that would look like. “[The trail] will be an intrusion to the people who have lived there for generations,” she concluded.
The county council members asked a few questions of Huntemer and the trail project coordinator Grant Carlton. In the end, they decided to postpone further deliberations to Nov. 27.
“I want to make it clear that I hear you. You are my people,” Minney said. “While extending this a little longer seems painful, I want to walk into this more educated and absorb everything we heard today and probably be hearing for the next two weeks.”
To listen to the full hearing, go to https://sanjuancowa.portal.civicclerk.com/event/2423/media.