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Nichols plan draws opposition in debate

Peter Callinicos, a Holmes Harbor resident and a member of the newly formed Friends of Holmes Harbor, stands on one of the harbor docks that has a clear view of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. Callinicos and the Friends oppose Nichols’ desire to expand their shipyard over the next 15 years. - Matt Johnson
Peter Callinicos, a Holmes Harbor resident and a member of the newly formed Friends of Holmes Harbor, stands on one of the harbor docks that has a clear view of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. Callinicos and the Friends oppose Nichols’ desire to expand their shipyard over the next 15 years.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Christine Goodwin is having a hard time believing that having a major shipyard near her back yard will not impact her life.

Goodwin, a Holmes Harbor resident, remembers the day in 2003 when logs and waves slammed into her dock, dislodging one of the pilings that held the dock in place. The rough water and debris in the normally calm, 10-mile harbor came off the props of two huge tugboats working to pull the 360-foot long cruise ship Empress of the North off the bottom of the harbor. The stern of the vessel had crashed into the muck when it slipped down a pair of launching rails, rails placed in the water by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders to float its largest ship construction project ever.

Now the president of the newly formed Friends of Holmes Harbor, Goodwin is at the head of a movement to oppose Nichols Brothers’ intent to more than double the size of its 5-acre shipyard, move to a 24-hour work schedule, and compete for military and state ferry shipbuilding contracts — contracts that could have the shipbuilder launching vessels as large or larger than the one that got stuck last year.

Goodwin and members of her group are also getting ready to battle Island County on a procedural matter — its recent declaration that it plans to issue a “determination of non-significance” in relation to the impact of the proposed expansion on the surrounding area.

While she claims she and other members of her non-profit political action group support Nichols Brothers’ current work at the tip of Holmes Harbor, Goodwin said Whidbey Island’s largest industrial employer is trying to grow too large for its location. That location is in the middle of a seaside residential community that has grown to hundreds of houses over the past 40 years.

If Nichols is going to build big ships, Goodwin said, the company should move to a place that already encourages that sort of industry, such as Everett.

“They’re becoming something that is not in balance with this community,” she said.

Shipbuilder encourages, gets debate

Since Nichols Brothers made its new, 15-year growth plan public in late October, Whidbey Islanders who both oppose and support the company’s intention to expand have been debating the merits of having a large shipyard in the midst of one of the more densely populated areas of South Whidbey. On their part, Nichols Brothers officials have encouraged the debate, making copies of the plan available at public libraries and holding two public, informational meetings during the past month — an unprecedented move for the firm. The growth plan is currently being reviewed by the Island County planning department, which has stated that it intends to issue a master permit to allow Nichols to build a permanent rail launch system in the Holmes Harbor tidelands, construct more than a dozen 65-foot high work buildings, and more than double the size of its yard.

In a notice published in local newspapers, the planning department has also stated it will likely issue a determination of non-significance, or DNS, when it recommends the approval of the master permit. That determination — though issued for most development projects, as is required by county development rules — has brought opposition to the Nichols proposal to a head during the past week.

“It’s just astonishing to me the county can maintain that there’s no environmental significance,” said Steve Erickson, one of the founders of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network while commenting recently on the permit process.

WEAN has allied itself with the Friends of Holmes Harbor and is currently engaged in doing legal research of the proposed shipyard expansion. At the same time, the proposal is being scrutinized by not only Island County, but the Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the state Department of Ecology. The state and federal agencies will issue permits relating to the shipyard’s expansion plan separate of and after Island County issues a master permit.

Jeff Tate, an assistant planner with Island County, said there will be no rubber stamping of any aspect of the Nichols permit. The current row over the intended DNS is a fight he said that will be better fought as the permit is examined and put out for public comment. While state law allows planning agencies to choose between DNS and determination of significance options in the permitting process, Tate said the planning department is required by county code to go with the DNS.

However, planners can and will write environmental provisions into the permit as needed, Tate said. And they will be needed: the Holmes Harbor tidelands at the Nichols Brothers tidelands are home to a growing community of eelgrass, a forage habitat for endangered Northwest salmon. Nichols Brothers was cited and fined by several state and federal agencies when the Empress of the North incident destroyed portions eelgrass beds in the harbor last year.

Why does it have to be so big?

Established in Holmes Harbor as a builder of small boats in 1964, Nichols Brothers has expanded its operations over the years. According to company literature, Nichols got its start building small fishing and tug boats, but by the early 1990s was best known for the high-speed aluminum catamarans it built for ferry companies and tourism firms.

During the past three years, Nichols has moved from building these mid-size boats — averaging about 150 feet long — toward larger projects, including the 3,500 ton Empress and a 265-foot-long, 1,100 ton prototype military catamaran dubbed the X-Craft. At a Nichols-sponsored community meeting held in Freeland on Dec. 14, Nichols chairman Matt Nichols confirmed that big boats are his company’s future. He said he hopes to win contracts to build large car ferry boats and production versions of the X-Craft.

“We will be chasing after more military work,” he said.

Through the 1980s, the shipyard went through several small expansion phases, building its facility to its current size — large enough to build one large boat at a time or two medium-sized boats simultaneously.

Bryan Nichols, Matt Nichols’ son and company co-president, has explained that the planned expansion of the shipyard — which includes a controversial, 1,400-foot-long rail launching system designed to accommodate ships weighing up to 5,000 tons — must happen if the company is to continue to business on Whidbey Island. Currently employing about 250 people, the company might move off the island if its expansion plans are rejected, Bryan Nichols said.

That’s not something even opponents of the expansion want to see. Friends of Holmes Harbor’s Goodwin said harbor residents can coexist with the company in its current configuration.

“We don’t want to take their jobs,” she said.

But the company’s drive to build large ships on a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-per-week schedule is unacceptable, she said. The highest-profile issue associated with these expanded hours is the amount of noise the constant work would generate.

At the Dec. 14 meeting, sound engineers working for Nichols Brothers attempted to explain their testing of the noise currently produced at the shipyard. According to their presentation, current noise levels meet state standards, on average.

With a larger shipyard, Bryan Nichols pledged his company will work more quietly than the state standard — 60 decibels during the day, 50 decibels at night — primarily through scheduling appropriate work for appropriate times of day, and by using noise dampening materials in the company’s construction sheds.

By comparison, the sound of someone playing the piano is the same level of noise that would be allowed the shipyard for daytime work.

This week, Bryan Nichols clarified Nichols Brothers’ aim. He said the master plan his company developed was required by Island County and other permitting agencies. The company will be required by 2007 to have a new type of boat launching system, something that does not involved the long concrete ramp and mechanical crawler tracks currently used.

Nichols said the growth scheme included in the plan is more an indication of what the shipyards future could be, not necessarily what it will be. For Nichols Brothers to grow to the full extent laid out in the plan — expected to cost about $10 million — the company would have to win a large number of big boat contracts.

“Right now we don’t have that sort of work behind us,” he said.

There’s going to be a showdown

Per a request by Nichols Brothers, the public review of the company’s expansion plan has been extended a month beyond what is required, giving islanders until Jan. 15 to submit commentary on the proposal to Island County.

During that time, county planners will be preparing a recommendation on the permit to go to Island County Hearings Examiner Michael Bobbink, who has the final signoff on any permit to be issued. Also in that time, both Nichols and those opposing the permit will be getting ready for a showdown in a public hearing, and if necessary, in court.

Nichols Brothers has hired a consulting attorney on the issue who is intimately familiar with Island County’s development regulations. Alison Moss, one half of the husband-and-wife team that helped write and defend Island County’s comprehensive land use plan when it was presented to the state for approval in 1999, is representing Nichols in matters relating to the master permit. Moss and her husband, Keith Dearborn, worked for Island County to the tune of about $722,000 during the two-year period required to finish the county’s comprehensive plan.

For their part, the Friends of Holmes Harbor are currently going through Nichols’ permit application and master plan in detail. At the same time, WEAN founders Erickson and Marianne Edain are researching several lists of permits pertaining to the proposed shipyard expansion, looking for any commissions in Nichols permit application. That application has been accepted as complete by Island County.

Both organizations have given credit to Nichols Brothers for its move to extend the public comment period on the permit. That will be a help to the public, Erickson said.

“That in itself is an improvement.”

No public hearing is currently scheduled for a final public review of the permit. Island County’s Jeff Tate said the hearing will be scheduled when the planning department finishes its permit review.

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