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Island Guardian

A Place to Stay

It’s still seems like winter here on the Island. The North wind, which misplaced our address for a few years, moved in with a vengeance this year. It’s hard to imagine that in a couple of months the tourist hordes will be stirring and heading our way. June, July, and August will be here bright and hot and these cold months will be a distant memory.

Along with that nice weather and those visitors will come the seasonal workers who make this place function. They are invisible to the residents of the main community, as they wait the tables, prep the food, mow the lawns, and change the sheets. Some of them are local kids, back from college to make a buck for tuition but most are seasonal workers, from many different parts of the country and even the different parts of the world. But they all have one thing in common: they all need a place to live!

In past years, there were sheds, guest houses, and spare rooms that they could rent. Also, there weren’t as many workers coming because we hadn’t yet become the destination that we now are. Now, that same reputation as a prime destination has dried up the supply of housing for those workers. On San Juan Island there are over 600 vacation rentals. Many of these used to be seasonal rentals or even long term rentals to people who lived here but didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to buy. That was me the first 12 years here. My wife and I rented a house owned by an Island family until we built our current house.

Now, the siren song of easy cash has caused many of those seasonal and long term rentals to be converted into expensive vacation rentals. It’s a good financial decision for an individual who has the room or cabin but it’s really starting to put a strain on the very industry that makes those vacation rentals possible.

Let me put this into some perspective. Over 100 kayak guides will be coming to San Juan Island to work this summer! That’s just the kayak guides. Now add in the whale watch naturalists, servers, wait staff, landscapers, and clerks everywhere and you can see that we have more people than we have housing for.

Some large employers like Roche Harbor can afford to build dorms and cabins but the average business on the island is too small and doesn’t have the raw land and development rights that go with it to do that.

This is a separate problem from the affordable housing issue but related in that vacation rentals are impacting that market too but there are some programs out there to address some of that need. As yet, the seasonal housing problem doesn’t seem to make much of a splash at the county level as the local voices want to solve the affordability issue first for long term residents. That makes sense. After all, they live here year round and are locals represented by their elected officials.

One thing we cooed do that would help seasonal and long term residents would be to encourage people to build guest houses to help out but actually, we actually discourage people from building guest houses. They are tightly restricted, less that two dozen new permits allowed per year for the whole county! You must own a minimum of 5 acres, the guest house must be less than 1000 square feet, on the same driveway, within a certain distance from the main house, and share the same septic system.

These restrictions are legacy policies from the Density Wars that were fought during the 70’s. We wanted the islands to stay the way they were so we made it hard to add more development. But when you restrict supply and mix that with AirBnB demand you have a perfect storm of businesses scrambling for workers who have no place to live! Some are having to operate reduced hours because there aren’t enough workers. You have people camped illegally in the woods and all sanitation laws designed to keep the county clean are ignored as people do what bears do in the woods.

There have been proposals but they usually involve government built dorms or housing. Ouch, there go my taxes! There is another possible solution tho but it would require rethinking the whole density issue that is deeply woven into our land use codes.

What I would propose is allowing home owners to build seasonal housing or long term rental guest housing under a special permit that would remove restrictions on numbers, parcel size, density, shared drive and septic but would require that the applicant for these special permits give up any chance of future vacation rental permanently.

It would also allow that seasonal housing have a relaxed standard when it comes to energy codes. There’s no real need to requiring serious insulation if a cabin is only rented in the summer. Long term rentals would , of course, adhere to current standards. Fast track the permitting and figure out a sanitary code that is available to handle grey water so that composting toilets can be used. Now grey water from a shower has to be treated the same as waste from the toilet and a full on septic system is prohibitively expensive.

This wouldn’t solve all of the need but given time, home owners could start building and making some extra income. It would be the property owners who would foot the bill for the housing, not the County and it would be the property owners who would reap the extra income. I’ve done this with a small cabin that I own and have enjoyed the folks who have rented from me. It’s been a great experience and helped me financially and gave them a place to stay. I’m lucky in that my cabin was permitted as a guest house long ago when permits were plentiful and inexpensive. A new look at old policies might be in order now to enable more people to choose to build housing that helps a critical need in our County’s economy.

A special fast track permit wouldn’t solve all of our needs but it might help create housing that would stay permanently in the long term rental market. A 90 day minimum on rental term would exclude the vacation home use. Being privately built saves County money. The only cost is staff time to write the new codes. Because of the lead time in planning and building, this must be done NOW! If this happened today, it would be summer of 2018 at the earliest that this would have any effect. Please encourage your County council members to act now to start working on a solution to this housing problem.

(It’s said that the people who live on San Juan Island either have three jobs or three homes. Greg has always been a three jobs kind of guy. He is currently a Port Commissioner, teacher at Skagit college, and owner operator of Friday Harbor Cruises where he offers day charters and the classic 3 hour tour, minus the shipwreck on a tropical island! He writes about Life, Love, and Laughter in these columns and hopes only to entertain old friends and make new ones.)

That’s Roach, Like The Bug!

In 1940, my Dad gave me the best defense against telemarketers... he changed his name. He didn’t change the spelling, he changed the way that it was pronounced. You see, Dad grew up in North Dakota on a small farm during the dust bowl. This was a tough, hardscrabble life made even tougher by the fact that Dad didn’t speak English. His parents were German peasants who had been living in Russia when the Russo - Japanese war broke out in 1905. Rather than face the Russian draft, (term of service, 25 years. Chance of surviving, nil), the whole village immigrated to the US and started farming communities in the upper plains. The fields of the Dakota’s reminded them of the steppes of Russia and they settled in.

Like many of those families, Grampa and Grandma Hertel spoke only German and there were enough German speakers in the farming community that it was never a hindrance to their lives. When Dad went to the local small towns grade school though, that changed. He could see that not speaking English was going to be a holding him back and would lead to bullying and many other problems. so he began learning English.

By fifth grade he was fluent and he decided that his parents needed to learn too, so he started speaking only English at home. Grandma would ask him a question in German and he would reply only in English. He claimed that he never spoke German again after that, though he understood it for the rest of his life. Grandma Hertel spoke a very heavily accented English that was a direct result of Dad’s rebellion.

By 1940, Grampa and Grandma were separated and Grandma was trying to run the farm with Dad’s 4 older sisters and his younger brother. This would have been hard in the best of times and it was not the best of times. As soon as Dad graduated from High School, he wanted out and as far away from the farm as possible. The Navy looked good, but he was only 17 and needed his parents permission. After a lot of lobbying he finally got it and was shipped off to boot camp at the Great Lakes Navel Training Station in Illinois.

This is where I got that gift that still protects me from telemarketers. Dad could see the war coming and knew that we’d be in it against Germany and that having German sounding name wouldn’t help his career in the Navy, so he simply changed the way it was pronounced. In the Dakotas, Hertel was pronounced “Hurdle” like the track event. At boot camp, he told people that it was pronounced “Her tell” which is what I grew up with. Most people, seeing my name for the first time and not knowing me will use the German version. When I pick up the phone and hear, “Hello Mr. Hurdle” I immediately know it’s somebody out to sell me something and I can hang up right there. It sounds so wrong and is so obvious.

Now I’m hearing another name change in my community and it sounds just as off, just as grating but I can’t hang up! It’s the way some people are pronouncing the name of that small resort at the North end of San Juan Island. You know, the one named after Lt. Richard Roche of HMS Satellite. Now Lt. Roche was British and used the British pronunciation of “Roach” for his name, not the French sounding “Roshe”. The Brits do this frequently to French words. Out of ignorance, out of spite? Who knows. Whatever the reason, for over a hundred years locals have used the British “Roach” as the correct pronunciation. I would occasionally hear someone using the French version, but it immediately marked them as a newcomer and they were gently corrected by locals .

About 15 years ago though, I noticed as increase in the number of “Roshes,” and fewer corrections. There were more newcomers and especially among the summer residents of Roche Harbor, the French pronunciation was starting to predominate. This is mostly due to simple ignorance and a lack of gentle correction. I’m hoping that my readers, now that they have been made aware of this subtle but dangerous erasing of our British heritage will join me in constantly interrupting and correcting those poor misguided souls .

I will point out that in addition to people who mispronounce accidentally, there is a handful who do it willfully and with malice. One woman who works for the Visitors Bureau and who has lived here almost as long as I have insists that “Roach” is not dignified and will hurt our image as a tourist destination. As my Dad demonstrated, sometimes there are valid, personal reasons to change the way we pronounce something but to my way of thinking, “to promote tourism” doesn’t make the cut!

Last summer, I got some independent verification of the correct pronunciation of Roche when a British couple took a cruise on my tour boat. They were commenting on the many geographic points with British names and then they mentioned that they even had a friend who’s last name was Roche, “Just like your harbour!” she said. Bless her heart, she used the correct pronunciation as had been used for over a century here.

So help me out here folks. When you hear people mispronouncing Roche Harbor, jump in and remind them that “it’s roach, like the bug!” Help stop this creeping Franco-fication of the San Juans! We live next door to British Columbia, not Quebec.

Thank you and God save the Queen.

Grumpy Old Men

I’m always looking for a job to fit my skill set but the problem seems to be that those skills tend towards spending money, not making it! Chocolate taster for See’s Candy? Nope, never seen it advertised but I keep buying their candy anyway. Dorm father for the Seattle Sea Gals? My suggestions to team management only got me interviews with Seattle Vice squad and a “no contact” order. Who even knew Seattle had enough vice to warrant a squad?

Of course, I’d love to be an exotic motorcycle tester but for some reason, the factories always seem to hire ex-racers. I know that the perfect job can happen though. Once, I actually did meet a man with the Perfect Job! The Fearless wife and I were riding the BMW home from Montana and we headed across Lolo Pass into Idaho. This is a lovely road, with enough sweeping turns to entertain a motorcycle and scenic hot springs to stop and see. We had covered about 2/3 of the 50 miles from the top of the Pass to the town of Lowell when we pulled onto the shoulder near a beautiful curve on the Locsha river. Another motorcycle was parked about 50 yards away and the rider, a gray haired man a few years older than me was busy taking pictures of the area.

I was intrigued because he wasn’t just focusing on the river. He was taking what seemed to be random shots all around. I walked over and introduced myself and commented on the number of pictures he was taking and he replied, “I’m a location scout for a Hollywood studio and they want lots of pictures to evaluate locations for upcoming movies.”

“Let me get this straight: they pay you to ride around on your motorcycle and take pictures?”

“Well, not necessarily the motorcycle. They don’t care how I travel but in the summer, why not.”

He went on to explain how he would get an assignment with a description of an upcoming movie with a suggestion of the kinds of things that they were looking for. Sometimes it was a package deal for a couple of movie scripts plus some ads to scout too. He’d traveled widely and usually had ideas of where to look and off he’d go, camera in hand, all expenses paid. What a life but without contacts in the industry, no hope for me.

That’s all about to change though. I’ve finally found a perfect fit. The perfect job, not just for me but many other men “of a certain age”. The genesis of this was a story on the news a while back about “virtual kidnappings”.

Virtual kidnapping is when a person or couple is called and the caller claims to have a relative of theirs hostage. Money is demanded. Screams are heard in the back ground. Frequently a grandchild is said to be hostage and the person being called blurts out the name of a favorite and the kidnappers then use that name in their sick demands. It sounds silly sitting here in the light of day reading an on-line story but a surprising number of people are taken in by the acting of the kidnappers and quickly cough up bank numbers and passwords! I was shaking my head, thinking about the gullibility of people and then it struck me. There was an opportunity here. This ploy wouldn’t work on me because I’m too grumpy in the morning!

You see, I’ve reached that point in my life where I wake up with a sore back most days and have trouble sleeping most nights. Call me and make demands early in the morning and my first response will be, “Who the hell are you and do you want jerk?!” Actually, that wouldn’t be my first response but the Editor reminded me that this is a family newspaper and that I have to keep it on the PG side of R. Let me state for the record though that my mother drove trucks for the Coast Guard during WW2 and my dad was a chief in the Navy. I am a native “profanity speaker”. Once when I was still teaching middle school, I had a prankster call at 2AM and try to scare me with the heavy breathing thing. Still sleepy and not thinking, I unleashed a 30 second, non repetitive string of my dad’s favorites and was rewarded with a shocked intake of breath and a dial tone as they rapidly hung up. Later, my wife said, “What if they complain to the school board?” I never heard anything about it and besides, they would have to admit to misdemeanor harassment to complain.

But back to my kidnappers, my thought is this: I’m going to form a company called Grumpy Old Men. It will be a subscription service to handle calls that you can’t or don’t want to. Bill collectors, telemarketers, scammers, and virtual kidnappers. All of the employees will be men of a certain age, bad backs required as well as sleep problems on the resume. Chronic pain, anger management problems, and a general lack of political correctness all will be marks in the job seekers favor.

Here’s how it works: You get a call that you don’t want to deal with, punch in a two digit code and the call goes to Grumpy Old Men and one of our Greeting Representatives goes to work. By the time we’re done, our simple guarantee is that they won’t ever call again.

Another business opportunity would be dealing with E-mail scams! One of those Nigerian princes trying to get the money his uncle left him into this country? We handle those too. We’ll have an add on that costs a little extra but if you choose that option, we’ll bcc all emails exchanged to you so you can see how they are hooked, played, netted and clubbed.

I’ll have high standards for employment so I know you won’t be disappointed. There will be a profanity test to make sure that employees are fluent. They also must submit medical histories documenting some type of chronic, longstanding pain. One final company rule: If an employee wakes up feeling pretty good after a full nights sleep, they have to call in sick. We can’t use ‘em that day ;-)

Sample call:
“Hello, who the hell is this?”
“We have your grandson!”
“So what?”
“If you don’t pay us money right now we will kill him.”
“So what? The little jerk never sent me a thank you after his last birthday present.”
“We’ll kill him slowly and painfully!”
“OK, I’ll pay you. How big of a payment do you want, .38 or .45?”
You get the picture.

Who ya gonna call? Grumpy Old Men!

(It’s said that the people who live on San Juan Island either have three jobs or three homes. Greg has always been a three jobs kind of guy. He is currently a Port Commissioner, teacher at Skagit college, and owner operator of Friday Harbor Cruises where he offers day charters and the classic 3 hour tour, minus the shipwreck on a tropical island! He writes about Life, Love, and Laughter in these columns and hopes only to entertain old friends and make new ones.)

Clueless in Seattle

Dear Seattle, we need to talk. First, I love your setting, the Olympics, the Sound, and the network of waterways and ferries that connect across them. Mt Rainer is a world class view for the cost of a walk to the top of the nearest hill. I’ve come into your waterfront by boat and after a long voyage, the view of the skyline lit by a setting sun as you round Queen Anne hill and see the Needle and the skyline is heart stopping. But despite my love of all of these places, we have a problem Seattle. We have traffic to deal with. More to the point, we have the attitude of the people who deal with traffic to deal with.

I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings in Seattle and in my own small town of Friday Harbor talking about, studying, and looking for solutions to traffic issues. What I keep hearing from the ‘experts’ is that “we can’t build our way out of this problem”. With that attitude, they are absolutely right, we can’t because we won’t try. Instead, we try green solutions like converting car lanes to bus and bicycle lanes. You are at work converting a 6 lane viaduct into a 4 lane tunnel! You buy a bike share company who’s products sat in their racks, in the rain, steadily losing money and make plans to expand it… so the tax payer can lose even more money?

The values of European cities and transportation systems are extolled but we live in a location with American distances and hills, hills for god sake! We don’t have a tightly packed residential areas easily served by buses. We have suburbs where neighbors work in vastly different locations at different times making car pooling difficult at best. That doesn’t stop us from punishing commuters by adding car pool lanes that whiz along while the rest of traffic is stop and go. Are these ‘solutions’ sponsored by Big Oil? They would seem to be because the net result is to burn more fuel as 3 lanes out of 5 idle in stop and go traffic.

Right now, traffic is so bad, so often, going through Seattle that I will avoid going there at all costs and when I have to, its with a sense of dread and loathing. I avoid events, sightseeing, visiting friends and family. But there is an answer! Get rid of the social engineers who seem to populate your transportation department and hire some civil engineers instead. Build some roads Seattle. You’ve done it before. You built two freeways. It took guts and political courage to say to neighborhoods that they had to go for the greater good of all. Maybe we can even avoid condemnation now by utilizing the already existing right of ways and adding another layer on I-5.

You did it in the 50’s and 60’s. You even built out transportation in the 70’s. We can do this again and make the city move. You must make the city move! Freight needs to move from docks to rail to truck to store and back again. Not everyone will live in a South Lake Union condo and walk to work. Many can’t afford the price of urban housing and will have to commute.

BTW, you need to rethink this mad vertical building on the same old streets. I spent around 8 light cycles in the Mercer mess one day last winter and had time to marvel at the numerous surrounding construction cranes and the lack of additions to the streets. Congestion, thy name is Amazon!

Finally, you need to stop with the “feel good” and start acting like an adult and making “real good” decisions. A green solution that ultimately burns more fuel than the problem it claims to solve is not a good answer. Yes, your bus system works, keep it, but keep it in the core. Don’t try to expand it to rural areas in other counties. People live in the country and can’t drive? Time for them to move. Not up to you to solve their problems. Let people make their own decisions and build the infrastructure that best spends their money to do that.

Thanks for listening Seattle. I will visit at least one more time just to drive the viaduct at sunset because the view is stunning. I’ll miss it when it’s gone.

John Evans
Greg Hertel
Mary Kalbert
Ron Keeshan
Gordy Petersen
Janice Peterson
Bruce Sallan
Teresa Smith
Terra Tamai
Amy Wynn
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