Permit snafu halts Nichols launch

Construction of this 600-foot-long boat launch ramp at Nichols Brothers Boats in Freeland was halted this week. - file photo
Construction of this 600-foot-long boat launch ramp at Nichols Brothers Boats in Freeland was halted this week.
— image credit: file photo

The launch of a 3,500-ton cruise ship was halted this week when the construction of its launch ramp was called into question by state and federal authorities.

The ramp, built by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders at its construction yard at the head of Holmes Harbor, is to be used to launch the $60 million Empress of the North sternwheeler. The launch date is currently set for June 16.

But this week, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a stop-work order on the ramp, citing the company's failure to obtain permits for the project. The Corps chief of enforcement, Michael Lampreht, hand delivered the stop-work order to Nichols Brothers president Matt Nichols Tuesday.

According to the Army Corps, Nichols failed to get "substantial shoreline development" permits from Island County and the state's Department of Ecology, a Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA) from the state Department Fish and Wildlife, and approval Army Corps.

The company attempted to resolve the impasse in a closed-door meeting Thursday afternoon that included personnel from Fish and Wildlife, Ecology, the Corps and Island County.

Matt Nichols said Thursday he was notified in a May 27 from the Corps that the ramp work was a violation. The Corps ordered the yard to stop work on the ramp.

The 600 -foot long temporary ramp, built over the existing launch site is a system of steel rails between 2 and 8 feet high. It will be used to glide and float the Empress out of the Nichols yard during an extreme high tide. The Empress is the largest vessel ever built by the company -- consequently, the ramp is also largest the company has ever used for one of its boats.

Nichols said he didn't think his company needed permits for the structure. He said it is built over the company's existing launch ramp.

"I think there has been a lack of communication between the parties involved about whether we needed permits or not," Nichols said Thursday. "We thought we would get a pat on the back for this new launch method."

Part of the misunderstanding Nichols perceives between his company and the Army Corps and other agencies may have to do with how permanent the rail system is. Nichols said the rails will be disassembled after the launch.

Ninety-two percent complete as of this week, construction on the rails may be complicated by a lengthy work stoppage.

"With this delay, we may have to use divers to complete it," Nichols said.

Nichols said he hopes the issue will be resolved by early next week. He has called on Congressman Rick Larsen and Gary Locke's office for assistance.

Phil Bakke, Island County's planning director, said the county does not to maintain a punitive work stoppage at Nichols Brothers. Bakke learned of the violation last week when he was contacted by Fish and Wildlife. While what Nichols has done qualifies as a "major violation," Bakke said, the county's enforcement response will be aimed at the company in the form of mitigation, restoration and environmental enhancements.

As long as environmental concerns are met, Bakke said the issue could be resolved.

"Nichols Boats is a vital part of Island County's economy and not to launch on time would hurt a number of Nichols employees and their families," he said.

The next appropriate launch date -- if the company misses the date in June -- would be in mid-July, according to Nichols.

But if the company cannot launch earlier, it will would miss the contractual delivery date of July 25 to the boat's buyer, American Steamboat Company.

At Ecology, which must sign off on any permit Island County might give Nichols for the launch structure, Larry Altos, a spokesman for the agency, said Ecology is willing to work with businesses as long as they apply for the proper permits.

"We should have been involved in this from the beginning," he said. "We understand companies have deadlines and delivery dates, but the best approach is to let us know early. That's better than ignoring the permit process."

Another permit Nichols failed to obtain was one from the Corps for structure construction on the shoreline.

"They had applied for a permit last fall for dredging and ramp maintenance but not for construction of the launch structure," said Patricia Graesser, a public affairs specialist with the Corps. "We became aware of it when someone reported the activity to us."

Also complicating the launch of the Empress is the date of June 16, which coincides with the beginning of the migratory fish season. Peter Birch, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife, said the timing could have been better.

"All of this could have been planned a year in advance, then there wouldn't be any problems," he said. "We know the life cycles of fish, and there are certain times that are more risky for them."

Still, he said there are ways to get the boat launched without undermining fish protection.

"We are looking for a short term solution to get the boat launched and lay out groundwork for future launches, and at the same time protect our resources," Birch said.

Another objector to the construction of the launch structure is Freeland resident Jay Hale, lives near Nichols Brothers. In a May 28 letter addressed to Island County, Hale claimed Nichols Brothers "built an environmentally harmful structure on the tidelands with no permit and crews worked on the tidelands during the migrating juvenile salmonids season."

Hale said in a telephone interview this week that Nichols is trying to get away with a type of construction anyone else would have to obtain a permit to do.

"Then why can't I build on the shoreline without permits," he said. "It's not fair."

Nichols has launched 450 vessels from its Holmes Harbor boat yard during the past 40 years.

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