by Colleen Smith, Heather Spaulding, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Kathryn Wheeler
At the end of the year, we take a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel impacted our communities.
1. Devastating fire in Friday Harbor
Friday Harbor lost three historical buildings in the downtown core on April 7, and several businesses were destroyed or damaged.
The incident was phoned in at 3:43 a.m. that morning by a passing tow truck driver. By 8 a.m., flames appeared to die down in the upper stories of the buildings, only to reemerge. The fire was serious enough that some Orcas Fire, Lopez and Skagit personnel were requested to assist. Washington State Ferry Service also dispatched a ferry for the transport of emergency personnel and apparatus. Early estimates by Fire officials were approximately 10 million dollars in losses. Fortunately, nobody was injured and no lives were lost. Islanders jumped into action helping emergency responders as they battled the fire, many wept at the sight of such integral businesses and structures being engulfed in flame. As the fire abated and the smoke cleared, islanders reflected on the memories the buildings held, and worked diligently to raise funds for, and lend support to the business owners.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was brought in to investigate the source of the fire. After only a matter of days, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and ATF announced that the cause of the fire was determined to be arson. A 33-year-old Friday Harbor man, Dwight C. Henline, was arrested on April 16 in Langley, Washington. He was transferred from Island County to San Juan County, where he appeared in Superior Court on April 20. That case was dismissed so that federal charges could be brought against him. The federal case is being heard in the United States District Court of Western Washington. Henline has pleaded not guilty. A trial was set to be held in November but was postponed to June 20, 2023.
2. Sunken Aleutian Isle successfully recovered after 40 days
The Aleutian Isle, a 58-foot-long steel purse seine fishing vessel built in the 1970s, sank within minutes off the western shores of San Juan Island on a sunny Saturday in August. On the day of the sinking eyewitnesses described hearing screams as the vessel disappeared in a matter of minutes. Luckily all crew members aboard were rescued, and no lives were lost.
The boat initially came to rest along the western edge of an underwater shelf at just over 100’ depth, but by morning the vessel had slipped to a depth of over 200 feet, complicating matters considerably since dive operations at such a depth are exponentially more difficult and dangerous.
Immediately following the sinking a large diesel sheen appeared up the coast from the sunken vessel, a few short miles from a large gathering of endangered Southern Resident killer whales who had briefly entered the area unaware of the unfolding tragedy. Fortunately, the whales were reported returning to the open ocean riding an outgoing tide just as the diesel sheen’s tendrils draped down the coast of San Juan Island where the whales had been just hours before.
Two weeks after the initial sinking professional dive operations vessels and crews from Global Dive & Salvage arrived on the scene. With large barges, cranes, and specialized rescue and recovery equipment, crews anchored directly above the fishing vessel resting precariously on her starboard side overhanging a deep water trench dropping to the icy depths over 700 feet below.
Over the next several weeks divers professionally skilled at deep water dives, along with their support teams, removed loose fishing nets and other debris prior to recovering the vessel. An ROV was sent down on several occasions to get a better look at the scene, as divers began to make their initial descents.
Each dive lasted for several hours with only an approximately thirty-minute work window available for the diver to actually work before they had to begin a slow, methodical ascent to a waiting decompression chamber at the surface. Divers then spent several additional hours decompressing in the chamber before safely exiting.
Thirty-six days after the Aleutian Isle sank the vessel was successfully lifted to the surface using extremely heavy large cables and straps that had been carefully wrapped and secured around the vessel at points along the length of the boat.
Once raised to the surface the vessel was determined to be too heavy to lift onto an awaiting barge. Hundreds and hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel had to be pumped from the vessel over a period of several days before the vessel was finally lifted onto a barge.
Forty days after the Aleutian Isle sank in Haro Strait, the threat to the pristine island coastline and wildlife had been removed. The entire dive operation took over three weeks and several million dollars to successfully accomplish the task. While a final report and findings have not been released, the vessel was seen the day before briefly running aground as it left port in Anacortes.
3. Ferry service disruptions
A slew of ferry service interruptions that have seriously impacted residents led to a special meeting between the San Juan County Council and the Ferry Advisory Committee on Oct. 6 at 9 a.m. Ferry disruptions began as COVID hit, and continued to plague the system throughout the year, WSF reported 45 cancellations of San Juan Islands route sailings in the span of just two weeks.
Councilmember Cindy Wolf spoke on behalf of concerned residents. “These cancellations affect working families, school children, government operations, social services, sheriff operations, and more,” she said. “It impacts our ability to do business as a community when small tradespeople can lose 20% of their income for a week when the interisland [ferry] is canceled.”
The meeting resulted in an agreement between Washington State Ferries, which committed to working with Rep. Lekanoff and SJC Council on better notification strategies for passengers when a delay is foreseen. WSF anticipates that their increased focus on recruitment and employee education will bring relief to the system by the summer of 2023, and fewer cancellations due to staffing shortages. In the long term, they will focus on acquiring new boats with increased funding from the state.
If things stay on track, the first of five new boats should arrive in 2027, but the project is already five years behind schedule, and all new boats will simply replace the many senior (over the age of 50 years old) ships, adding no actual increase in ships, but perhaps resulting in fewer mechanical issues that cause delays.
As some of the most frequent passengers, island students and teachers often face the brunt of the issues caused by unpredictable ferry schedules. “If the boats don’t leave on time we miss the first half hour of class or more depending on how late it is,” said Julia van Dongen, an Orcas resident who has attended Spring Street International School for the last four years.
While WSF has agreed to work more closely with the San Juan County Council, real solutions to this issue remain far off.
4. November election leads to changes in county leadership
One thing is for sure in life, and that is change is inevitable. This certainly was the case this year for several elected positions in San Juan County.
There’s a new sheriff in town. A new prosecuting attorney. A new auditor, along with a new county commissioner. Each of them brings new blood, new ideas, and fresh enthusiasm to their newly elected positions.
Sheriff-elect Eric Peter brings 27-plus years of broad law enforcement experience and 14 years of supervising law enforcement personnel to the Sheriff’s office. Peter ran a solid campaign for Sheriff, eventually besting current Sheriff Ronald J. Krebs by a slim margin of 53.07% to 46.61% of voters.
Prosecutor-elect Amy Vira has some big shoes to fill as she begins her job with the full support and confidence of retiring Prosecutor Randy Gaylord, who is retiring after 28 years in the position. Vira has been Deputy Prosecutor in San Juan County since 2011 and ran unopposed in 2022.
Auditor-elect Natasha Warmenhoven follows in the footsteps of her former boss, mentor, and retiring 16-year veteran Auditor Milene Henley. Warmenhoven served as Chief Deputy Auditor for San Juan County since January 2020, and ran unopposed in 2022.
County Commissioner-elect Jane Fuller also follows in the footsteps of long-time Lopez Island representative Jamie Stevens, who is retiring after 12 years as District 3’s representative. Fuller’s previous local community involvement was as San Juan Charter Review Commissioner from 2020-2021 before running unopposed for Commissioner.
Several other elected positions in San Juan County went to incumbents who did not face an election challenge in 2022. These included San Juan County Treasurer Rhonda Peterson, San Juan County Clerk Lisa Henderson, San Juan County Assessor John Kulseth, and District Court Judge Carolyn Jewett.
Perhaps the biggest surprises in the 2022 elections were the defeat of the San Juan Island Library District’s efforts to build a new library on San Juan Island, the San Juan County Road Fund Regular Property Tax Lid Lift, along with the defeat of four ballot measures placed on the 2022 ballot by the Charter Review Commission (CRC).
The San Juan Island Library District’s proposition was soundly defeated by voters who felt it wasn’t the right time. The Road Fund Regular Property Tax Levy Lid Lift did not find favor with voters in 2022. And following a controversial last-minute debacle between the CRC and the San Juan County Council, Prosecuting Attorney’s office, and County Administrator’s office, the four measures placed on the ballot by the CRC were defeated in no uncertain terms.
Voter turnout for the 2022 general election was 78.25% with 11,458 ballots counted from a total of 14,643 registered voters.
5. County adds Environmental Stewardship Department
In 2021, the San Juan County Council voted unanimously to elevate the Environmental Resources Division to an independent County Department by creating an Environmental Stewardship Department. Kendra Smith was appointed Executive Director of the Department. Several different programs are carried out by the Environmental Stewardship Department, including the new Climate and Sustainability Program, Clean Water Project, and Solid Waste, Marine Resources, and Cultural Resources. Each program has its own advisory committee to help guide the work.
Currently, the Climate and Sustainability Program is focusing on two primary tasks, the Tourism Management Plan and the Climate Action Plan.
The Tourism Management Plan has already held several community meetings to get feedback from islanders. In the end, the plan will lay out the impacts and opportunities that tourism presents in San Juan County and provide a comprehensive roadmap for sustaining our community and resource needs, now and in the future.
The Climate Action Planning Process began in January 2022 with the formation of the advisory committee and a draft timeline. Work is ongoing with an estimated plan implementation date of the summer of 2023. The goal is to use a science-based strategic framework for mitigating and adapting to climate impacts. It will include goals, targets, and prioritized strategies and identify required resources and funding.
Meanwhile, the Solid Waste Program has been working to streamline the county’s waste system, and the rest of the Environmental Stewardship Department staff have been busy with an array of new projects to protect the island’s environment.
6. Charter Review Commission sues county, court orders ballot measures included on November ballot
Following a unanimous decision by the County Council Aug. 2 to take no action on proposed County Charter amendments submitted by the Charter Review Commission in December 2021, members of the CRC filed a Petition for Correction of Election Error in Superior Court. The suit alleged the County Council’s decision to take no action was illegal and threatened to deprive the CRC of its role under the charter, depriving voters of their right to vote on the CRC’s four proposed amendments.
The petitioners asked the court to conduct an expedited proceeding to prevent an election error in the printing of the ballots for the upcoming general election, claiming the Court’s intervention was necessary to ensure that the general election ballot included the four proposed charter amendments referred to the ballot by the CRC.
The petition stated that pursuant to the San Juan County Charter, once the CRC referred these measures to the County Council, the Council had ministerial responsibility to refer the measures to the ballot. Petitioners stated the failure to do so was illegal and threatened to deprive the CRC of its role under the Charter and deprive voters of their right to vote on the CRC’s four proposed amendments.
Following an expedited court hearing on Aug.15, by the legal counsel for both the petitioners and respondents, Island County Superior Court Judge Christon C. Skinner found that the County, County Council, and County Auditor erroneously refused to refer the four proposed charter amendments to the auditor for inclusion on the November 2022 general election ballot. Skinner presided over the case because Superior Court Judge Loring was disqualified due to her and her staff’s involvement in the proceedings with the CRC.
According to the court “The council’s decision not to refer the four proposed amendments submitted in December of 2021 was contrary to the terms of the Charter and amounts to a ballot error that should be corrected.”
San Juan County, the San Juan County Council, and the San Juan County Auditor were ordered by the Court to place the four Propositions submitted by the CRC on the November ballot. Further, the court found that the Council’s decision not to accept the CRC’s Propositions based upon the belief that any further submissions by the CRC after their first submission was “erroneous in the Court’s view, but it was also not the Council’s decision to make.”
Following the court’s decision and order, the San Juan County Auditor’s office took all steps necessary to ensure the Propositions appeared on the November ballot.
While the four ballot measures did in fact appear on the November ballot, all four measures failed to sway enough voters and they all failed to pass.
7. County Council limits vacation rentals
After listening to over three hours of public testimony on May 17, the San Juan County Council unanimously voted on island-specific caps for vacation rentals. Orcas is capped at 211, San Juan at 337, Lopez at 135 and the outer islands at 10. The new limits took effect ten days after the ordinance was adopted.
“I heard San Juan Island loud and clear, and I heard Orcas loud and clear,” council member Cindy Wolf said to her colleagues as they deliberated. Commenters from Orcas Island heavily supported a cap, citing safety issues, water concerns and impacts on affordable housing. San Juan Island commenters cited economic reasons to keep vacation rentals as a viable source of income, many stating they did not see the evidence that short-term rentals have a significant impact, particularly on affordable housing.
The high number of VRs coupled with the fact they are concentrated in Orcas Island’s densest residential neighborhoods led Orcas Islanders to petition the council to put limits on them, Wolf said.
“It isn’t all a money grab,” council member Jamie Stephens, Lopez Island said. “People do this for a variety of reasons,” Stephens explained that he wanted space to increase the number, and 135 provided that space. Stephens also said he felt it was important the ordinance be reviewed in five years. San Juan County Community Development director Dave Williams pointed out that the council could revisit the issue at any time, and Wolf objected to mandating what future council must deal with.
8. Wolverines become state soccer champs
Although the Wolverine soccer team has come close over the years, this is the first time they took home the prized State Championship trophy. The team won the championship on Nov. 19.
On Nov. 18, the boys won their semi-final game against St. George in the Renton Memorial Stadium, setting them up to play against the Orcas Vikings in the Renton stadium the next day.
The two talented teams played a tight game, but the Wolverines stayed in the lead, with the final score of 2-1.
“On a cold November Saturday in 2022, something was different. The nerves of a nail-biting semi-final penalty kick shootout win against St. George’s the night before were gone,” Sam Paul-Barrette wrote in a Journal article on Dec. 1. “All that remained was hope, expectation, confidence and a terrifying resolve to finally bring home Washington High School Soccer’s biggest prize. In a Championship matchup, most could have (or should have) seen coming, San Juan County’s soccer acumen was on full display.”
According to Paul-Barrette, in the 43rd minute, Owen Conde Raggett found fellow Senior Zach Place, who played an inch-perfect one-touch cross to the head of Junior Alden Carli, who made the goal to an eruption of cheers. Shortly after, Carli took a hit inside the penalty area, but midfielder Jasper Williamson swooped in, taking a positive touch before laying the ball off to Conde Raggett, who would put it away from close range to give the Wolverines a 2-0 lead. The Vikings were able to score but never caught up to the Wolverines.
Family, friends and fans greeted them as they returned home on the 9:45 p.m. ferry Saturday night. Fire trucks, aid cars, police, and Island Towing fired up their lights and sirens as the ferry pulled in, while the crowd cheered. Boys from the Junior Varsity Soccer team welcomed them with signs. Town Mayor Ray Jackson proclaimed Dec. 1 Boys Soccer Day.
9. Sea plane crashes, no survivors
On Sept. 26, the U.S. Navy recovered the wreckage of the DHC-3 Turbine Otter seaplane that crashed on Sept. 4 off Whidbey Island, killing all nine passengers and the pilot. The accident occurred during the pilot’s second trip of the day.
A review of Federal Aviation Administration tracking data revealed that the flight departed from Friday Harbor Seaplane Base at around 2:50 p.m. with a destination of Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Washington.
Witnesses near the accident site reported that the airplane was in level flight before it entered a slight climb, then pitched down in a near-vertical descent. The airplane continued in a nose dive until it hit the water in Mutiny Bay. Several witnesses described the airplane as “spinning,” “rotating,” or “spiraling” during portions of the steep descent.
Recent reports by the National Transportation Safety Board, which has been investigating the crash since it occurred, stated that “it appeared [that] a critical part that moved the plane’s horizontal tail stabilizer came apart,” as reported by The Seattle Times. This may have been because a clamp nut had unthreaded, or the lock ring was improperly installed. The failure of the tail stabilizer could have allowed a loss of control over the airplane.
The crash came during peak tourism season when seaplanes see a large deal of activity and many rely on them to safely reach the islands. The crash was unsettling to many, who were shocked by the tragedy and questioned their own use of the plane service going forward. Among the victims were a civil rights activist, a business owner, a lawyer, an engineer and the founder of a winery and his family.
10. People came together
After years of isolation due to COVID, in 2022 islanders slowly and cautiously began to come together once again.
The San Juan County Fair was held at the fairgrounds for the first time in two years. While the food court was not as big as it had been, islanders still came out to enjoy food, see who won first prizes, listen to live music, cheer on equestrians and watch the infamous Fashion Trashion Show.
While the Artist Studio Tour did return cautiously in person the summer of 2021. The 2022 event was even more special as it celebrated a milestone of thirty years.
The Friday Harbor Film Festival had been offering digital showings throughout COVID but returned in-person in October. The festival included all the fan favorites like the Opening Gala, a filmmakers’ forum, spotlighted young filmmakers, and closed with the Audience Choice awards. Because of the digital showings already in place, they were also able to continue those for people who could not attend. Rock Island enabled the festival to include filmmakers virtually, who were not able to travel.
After a long break from in-person performances, the San Juan Community Family Theatre presented “BOTs the new family musical” in November.
The shows are performed by local children ranging in age from kindergarten to 6th grade and their parents with the backstage crew made up of kids from 7th through 12th grade.
“Bots” consisted of a cast of over 50 island children and adults who pulled off an amazing performance. The story focused on the importance of working together and helping each other spotlighting that cooperation and empathy are more important than an easy win.