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Nichols nears study phase

Jon Barrett installs ceiling panels on the catamaran Peralta under construction at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders boatyard. Currently 215 people are employed at the Freeland boatyard. - Gayle Saran
Jon Barrett installs ceiling panels on the catamaran Peralta under construction at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders boatyard. Currently 215 people are employed at the Freeland boatyard.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Damage to fish and wildlife, polluted stormwater runoff into environmentally sensitive areas and Holmes Harbor, the presence of military ships and global warming are just some of the issues people and agencies want to see studied before the proposed expansion of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland.

County planners asked the public for issues that should be included in the environmental study for the Freeland boatyard during a “scoping period” late last year. Four different agencies, three interest groups and seven local citizens sent comments to the county outlining the issues they want addressed as the county considers Nichols’ proposed master permit.

People for Puget Sound, a nonprofit environmental protection group, is concerned about the health of the wetland adjacent to the boatyard.

“The few wetlands left around Puget Sound need to be protected,” said Heather Trimm of People for Puget Sound.

Trimm said her group is concerned about run-off from the shipyard into the wetland.

Currently, stormwater runoff is collected and filtered to an infiltration pond with a 25-foot buffer zone.

On a parallel path with the master permit application, Nichols is updating the filtration system for approval by Department of Ecology.

The treatment system has already been improved, shipyard officials say.

“We’ve done a couple of upgrades since it was installed. The system has met Ecology’s requirements,” said Bryan Nichols, president of the company.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is concerned about protecting “near shore” fish habitat and the saltwater wetland.

Possible solutions include removing Shore Avenue and rerouting traffic behind the shipyard, or constructing a bridge or bridges and raising the elevation of the road.

So far, no final decision has been made about what issues will be studied as part of the environmental impact statement, or EIS.

“We are reviewing the comments for possible inclusion to the EIS,” said Joe Burcar, a planner with Island County.

“We will evaluate whether we need to add more to the EIS, or determine whether the county code is sufficient to cover the different issues,” he said.

Although all the comments may not pass muster and get further scrutiny in the EIS, Burcar said his office will be answering the specific concerns people have raised.

The county had already planned to include five elements in the upcoming EIS; air quality, fish and wildlife, noise building height/design/lighting and landscaping and recreational navigation.

For Nichols, developing the environmental study was an expected part of its quest for a comprehensive permit.

“We fully expected this as part of the process,” Nichols said.

“We’re happy to work with the county and local community to perform the study,” he said.

Nichols has hired independent consultants, including biologists, noise experts and landscape designers to assist in the process.

He said the company appreciates the public comment.

“The comments will help modify our master permit to better fit with the concerns expressed,” Nichols said.

The shipyard owners will also have a say in the study, according to county officials.

“We will work with Nichols to format the EIS,” Burcar said.

Several individuals have expressed concern about having an expanded shipyard on Holmes Harbor, and have suggested moving the yard to Everett or some other location. And some say shipyard workers could take a ferry from Whidbey Island to Everett to work.

But the company says moving the shipyard isn’t realistic.

“Taking workers back and forth everyday would be cost prohibitive,” Nichols said. “We would not be able to be as competitive for contacts. Setting up a new yard, even if we could find a place, would be a big investment.”

The boatyard is part of the community, Nichols said, adding that his grandfather founded the company 40 years ago.

“We are a family business, a lot of local people work here. They could be a next door neighbor, or your kid’s coach,” Nichols said.

Currently, Nichols employs 215 people and is the island’s second largest employer on the South End. The South Whidbey School District has approximately 275 employees.

Officials at Nichols voluntarily held two community meetings in 2004 to detail the company’s proposed expansion plan. Since that time, the company has been working with the county and state departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife — as well as the Army Corps of Engineers — to meet each agency’s permit requirements.

Because of the confusion from past permit approvals, changes to regulations, efficiencies in boat building and requests of state regulators and Island County, Nichols Brothers Boats is seeking a master permit.

The master permit will consolidate all permit approval conditions into a single approval, require a permanent launch system that will not require maintenance dredging, and make sure that aesthetic and noise impacts are acceptable for the surrounding community.

Comments received during the recent scoping period ranged from one page to the most lengthy — 15 pages from the Friends of Holmes Harbor. The group has been a frequent critic of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in recent years.

The Friends of Holmes Harbor would like the county to study a broad range of topics, including impacts to fire and police services, stormwater and wastewater flows, potential earthquakes, soil contamination, flooding and fuel spills.

The Tulalip Tribes is requesting the county consider the impacts of increased vessel traffic, noise and wake on Tulalip fishing and shellfishing grounds and activities. That includes studying the impacts from military boats that patrol Holmes Harbor while Nichols Brothers is working on military vessels.

The Department of Ecology has said the EIS should be very focused on a few topics needing further amplification, since much information on the proposed expansion has already been submitted.

Topics needing further study, according to Ecology, are noise, aesthetics, recreation and navigation, water quality and alternatives to the proposed rail launch system.

The proposed expansion includes reconfiguration of the existing boatyard by relocating vessel productions areas, open storage and administration buildings, construction of up to 11 modular buildings, an expansion of operating hours and construction of a 1,400-foot-long pile supported marine rail launch system.

Once the draft environmental impact statement is finished it will be distributed for public comment.

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