Keystone dock plan questioned

A state ferry enters the Keystone landing from Port Townsend. The state is considering moving the landing from this shallow, man-made harbor. - Cynthia Woolbright
A state ferry enters the Keystone landing from Port Townsend. The state is considering moving the landing from this shallow, man-made harbor.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

On Thursday night, officials from Washington State Ferries found out the word "new" only invites trouble on Whidbey Island.

At a meeting in Freeland, residents grilled Ray Deardorf, director of planning for WSF, about the possible relocation of the Keystone ferry terminal. They were concerned about possible effects on the environment and on housing in the area as well as the cost of a possible relocation.

And they had questions -- complicated questions.

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

Unfortunately, Deardorf, a guest at the quarterly meeting of the Northsound Ferry Advisory Committee, had few answers. He explained that the preliminary study, which is just getting started, is meant to help WSF decide whether a new dock should be built at Keystone.

"We're going to see if there are buildable areas and if there are any obvious environmental concerns," Deardorf said.

He said WSF staff don'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 extend farther into Puget Sound, eliminating the constant dredging necessary to keep the current dock functioning.

Deardorf said Keystone is a difficult landing because of fast-moving currents near the opening of the shallow harbor. Ferry boats have been beached three times in the last year and-a half because of the difficulty of navigating in the area. WSF is considering changing the dock location because the current dock is in water too shallow and and an area too narrow for most ferry boats.

"One ferry captain described (the run) as 25 minutes of pleasure followed by five minutes of sheer terror," Deardorf said.

In addition, strong currents make docking 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 so old it would cost less to replace than to continue maintaining them.

Instead of designing special, shallow-running boats for use on the Keystone-Port Townsend run, Deardorf said WSF officials would rather build a new ferry dock on Whidbey that accommodates 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.

Yet, if public reaction is any indication, WSF officials have a lot of questions to answer before Whidbey residents will be appeased. Those commenting Thursday questioned whether the advantages from moving the ferry dock would be worth the effects and cost. Several people asked why WSF isn't considering improvements to the current dock.

A woman who lives in the Keystone 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 is next to an "underwater park" that draws divers from all over the nation and is across the 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 Fort Casey State Park would be paved over.

Deardorf said he recently held a meeting with "stakeholders" in the area -- including Island County and state parks and fish and wildlife representatives -- to discuss the WSF dock study. He said agency representatives have the same questions about the possible project as island residents do.

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

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