News

City pier delayed but progress made

It’s slow going for city project

By JESSIE STENSLAND

Staff reporter

While Oak Harbor officials’ original vision of completing construction on a new city pier by the end of 2002 isn’t going to happen, the city and dock committee still continue to make slow but steady progress on the project.

Harbormaster Dave Williams, the city’s project manager for the pier, explained that the city hit a few snags during the on-going permitting process that delayed the process and will likely increase the estimated $3.5 million price tag for the structure.

A new timeline sets construction to begin in July of 2004.

Former Mayor Steve Dernbach got the ball rolling on a proposed municipal pier more than four years ago. He suggested replacing the old Maylor dock, which burned down in the 1960s, with a new pier jutting out into the water from Flintstone Park on Bayshore Drive. He appointed community members and staff to a municipal pier committee.

One of the purposes behind the dock is to help revitalize Oak Harbor’s faltering downtown business district by attracting both residents and tourists to the area.

“The pier is the cornerstone of all the activities planned for downtown Oak Harbor,” said Helen Chatfield-Weeks, long-time committee chairperson. “It will be wonderful for the people of Oak Harbor. Their children and children’s children will enjoy it. We’re looking at the long-term future.”

Since then, the pier committee and city consultants have refined the look and function of the proposed structure. It is envisioned as a unique, 300-foot, Y-shaped dock that can serve a foot-traffic-only ferry, tour boats, seaplanes and pleasure boats.

Unfortunately, the pier project began in an age of endangered salmon and tough environmental requirements. The city needs to get permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Natural Resources and the department of Fish and Wildlife to build the structure in the water.

Williams said the project was stalled by Fish and Wildlife officials, who wanted an eel grass study and a mitigation plan. The city hired Dr. James Norris of Port Townsend-based Marine Resources Consultants to map the eel grass in the area of the proposed pier at a cost of about $5,500 from the city’s general fund. Eel grass provides essential habitat for young salmon — called salmonoids — who hide from predators in the crab-grass-like aquatic plant.

The eel grass study, Williams said, is nearly complete and shows “very sparse” growth in the project area. That’s good news for the committee, but Williams said grass may still have to be transplanted elsewhere.

That’s where the mitigation plan comes in. The purpose is to mitigate or offset the negative effect the project would have on the near-shore environment. The city hired Seattle-based consulting company Peratrovich, Nottingham & Drage to do the plan at a cost of $30,000, which, again, comes from the city general fund. The company has been involved in the project since the beginning, aiding with the permitting process, soil testing and surveying of the site.

Although Williams said the plan will not be complete until the end of January, he said they do have some idea what possible mitigation measures might be.

Fish and Wildlife suggested, for example, “extending the length of the approach” on the dock by 60 feet or so, which would mean the “Y” in the dock would start farther out, Williams said. By doing that, he said the structure would have less of an impact on the important near-shore environment and would require less dredging.

Williams said the city is in the process of exploring state and federal grant funding for the project, although grants inevitably require city matching funds. To date, the city has received over $500,000 in grant money and has spent, or is obligated to pay, a total of over $155,000.

Of course, the city needs millions of dollars more.

Recently, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen succeeded in keeping $200,000 in funds for Oak Harbor pier construction in the Federal Ferry Boat Discretionary Program. The pier project qualified for the funding since officials hope to have either private or state passenger ferry service at the dock someday.

Williams said the city had asked for $3.5 million from the federal fund, but received only the $200,000 in “seed money.” This is good news, Williams said, because it means federal officials think it’s a worthwhile project.

“It establishes the validity of the program,” he said. The city can now ask again for the entire $3.5 million or so from the feds, and Williams thinks they may have a pretty good shot.

There’s an alphabet soup or other possible funding sources, from the DNR’s ALEA, to HUD’s Community Block Grants and even DOT’s STP.

After the mitigation plan is done, Williams said the city will re-submit the permit applications and hope for the best, though more negotiations with Fish and Wildlife will probably be necessary.

“The administration and the pier committee view this as an essential project for the city,” Williams said, ”and we’re optimistic that it will be built.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-1166.

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