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Residents skeptical of Keystone ferry dock relocation study

Members of the public grilled Ray Deardorf, director of planning for State Ferries, about a feasibility study for relocating the Keystone ferry terminal during a Ferry Advisory Committee meeting Thursday night in Freeland.

The residents were loudly concerned about possible impacts on the environment, housing in the area and the cost of a possible relocation project.

“What will the effects be on Crockett Lake?” Steve Erickson of Whidbey Environmental Action Network asked. “What’s the net loss of native vegetation?”

Deardorf had few answers. He explained that the preliminary study, which is just getting started, is only meant to help State Ferries decide “whether or not it is feasible that a nearby location” could be the site of a relocated ferry terminal.

“We’re going to see if there are buildable areas and if there are any obvious environmental concerns,” Deardorf said. He said State Ferries staff doesn’t want to to invest in an expensive, full-blown environmental assessment or traffic studies until they know if relocation is even an option.

Deardorf said the feasibility study will focus on two areas east of the current ferry dock, on state park land between the dock and the beachfront houses. The new dock’s causeway would go out a way into the water so that dredging won’t be necessary.

The reason that State Ferries is looking into relocation, Deardorf said, is because the current landing area is too shallow and too skinny for the typical ferry boat and strong currents make landing difficult. Ferry runs are cancelled on a regular basis when the tides are low.

“Our prime motivation is to have a much more reliable route that does not require specialized boats,” Deardorf said.

The boats being used for the Keystone to Port Townsend run are the oldest boats in the ferry system.

The four “steel electric class” ferry boats are 75 years old — built in 1927 — and hold only 75 cars. Deardorf said the boats are aging to a point where replacing them would make better sense, fiscally, than repairing them.

But instead of designing special shallow-running boats that can only be used on the Keystone-Port Townsend run, Deardorf said State Ferries would rather build a new ferry dock on Whidbey and run ferries that can by used throughout the system.

In the past there have been long periods when only one ferry was running between Keystone and Port Townsend because the others were being repaired. With a new dock, Deardorf said, there wouldn’t be that problem with reliability.

Deardorf said Keystone is a difficult landing because of fast-moving currents near the opening of the shallow, dredged-out harbor. Ferry boats have been beached three times in the last year-and-a -half because of the difficulty of navigating in the area.

“One ferry captain described it as 25 minutes of pleasure followed by five minutes of sheer terror,” Deardorf said.

In addition, Deardorf said there is a safety issue because the parking area for the dock is pretty small and cars often line up out along a curve in the road.

Yet if public reaction is any indication, State Ferries have a lot of questions to answer before Whidbey residents will be appeased.

The residents at the meeting questioned whether the advantages from moving the ferry dock would be worth the effects and cost. Several audience members questioned why State Ferries isn’t looking at the feasibility of doing improvements to the current site, which would seem like the less expensive solution.

A woman who lives in the area said moving the dock nearer to housing would destroy her quality of life.

Marianne Edain of WEAN pointed out that the area is environmentally sensitive. It’s next to an “underwater park” that draws divers from all over the nation. It’s just across Keystone Road from Crockett Lake Wildlife Area, a saltwater ecological reserve.

With a new dock would come a new parking lot, which means a big chunk of the waterfront area owned by the State Park would be paved over.

Deardorf said he recently held a meeting with “stakeholders” in the area — including the county, State Parks, Fish and Wildlife — to discuss the feasibility study. He said the agencies had the same types of questions about the possible project as the residents do.

According to Deardorf, State Ferries will hold a public open house about the possible dock relocation after the feasibility study is completed this fall.

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