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Nichols Brothers of Freeland fine-tunes master plan

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is looking into noise and light as the company continues to fine-tune its application for a master-plan permit from the county.

John Collins, Nichols Brothers chief executive officer, said this week that the firm has hired a consultant to study noise issues, and that a similar study of lights burning at night out across Holmes Harbor will begin soon.

Meanwhile, the company has additional work to do on its permit application, which was submitted for the second time in late May, Island County officials say.

“It’s still not deemed complete,” Island County Planning Director Robert Pederson said Thursday. “They still have some issues with noise, for one thing.”

Noise and light were among the concerns voiced at a community meeting the company conducted in March on the master plan, which includes the proposal for a second work shift.

“Once we understand what the noise situation is, we can get into what evening work can be done,” Collins said.

In the meantime, he said, the company will construct berms to further cut down on the whirring, grinding, banging and sparking, byproducts of the boat-building business.

Collins said the company is determined to keep construction noise to a minimum during early mornings and late evenings, once the proposed second work period has been added.

The company wants to expand its work schedule by three hours to accommodate two shifts.

A new 17-hour workday would be from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The current workday is 13 hours, six days per week.

Although the firm’s competitors work around the clock everyday, “we know that won’t fly here,” Collins said.

Pederson said Nichols Brothers’ application for a “consolidation” permit still requires more detail. Once the application is complete, the county will conduct a thorough review and gather public comment, he said.

The permit would allow the firm to move forward through the years with projects within the permit’s parameters without obtaining individual permission for each job.

Currently, if it wants to make a change, the company is required to seek individual permits from one or more of as many as 15 local, state and federal categories.

Collins called the company’s plan for the future “a realistic approach” that balances the need to make a profit with being a conscientious neighbor.

“We’re trying to maintain our business and keep it going, and at the same time keep it balanced,” Collins said. “That’s been our goal from the beginning.”

About five years ago, the company applied to the county for a similar permit, then withdrew the application for several reasons, among them an outcry from the neighbors.

Collins said that this time around, the company plans to make the boatyard more efficient by reconfiguring its layout while staying within its existing boundaries.

He said that besides the added work shift, the plan focuses on rearranging facilities in the yard to increase efficiency, and on gaining permanent use of its large portable weather covers.

The eight structures are 53 feet tall and are erected over specific operations in the yard as needed to protect workers from the weather and to reduce noise, Collins said.

The company is using the shelters under a variance issued by the county this past fall. The firm’s existing height limit for structures is 48 feet, Collins said.

Nichols Brothers bought the shelters with $841,000 in federal stimulus money awarded this past August.

Collins said the structures are essential for safety and efficiency, and that there are no plans to obtain more, or to buy larger ones.

Proposed changes in the yard also would include increasing the fabrication slab and enclosing painting and sandblasting operations, he said.

Collins said that the company is restricted as to the size of vessels it can build by the boatyard’s location and geography, for example the depth of Holmes Harbor.

“You’re not going to see any oil tankers in here,” he told the more than 60 people at the March 11 community meeting.

He said the firm’s sole intent is to use its facilities more efficiently to prosper in a highly competitive business.

Nichols Brothers has rebounded from bankruptcy in 2008 after being bought by Ice Floe, headquartered in Texas.

It has obtained a steady flow of contracts to build large tugboats and catamaran ferries, along with refitting and maintenance work.

It also is a subcontractor with Todd Pacific Shipyard to build three 64-car ferries for the state of Washington. Nichols Brothers has completed one of the ferries and is working on the second.

A fourth ferry for the state may also be ordered from the two companies.

The steady workflow has allowed the firm to increase its employee force, Collins said, and more hires are expected.

In February, Nichols Brothers submitted its original application for a consolidation permit to the county, but the county sent it back, recommending some changes, including holding a public meeting.

Christine Goodwin of Freeland, president of Friends of Holmes Harbor, which has taken Nichols Brothers to task in the past, said her group will watch the application process closely before issuing a response.

“Until we review it, we won’t know,” she said this week.

At the March meeting, Goodwin raised several issues, including the danger of pollution and the noise and light traveling out over the harbor.

She also wanted a 25-year freeze on company expansion beyond its current boundaries after it obtains a consolidation permit, in case Ice Floe sells the firm.

Goodwin said her group isn’t outright opposed to the company operating in the predominantly residential area.

“We look forward to having Nichols Brothers in the community within a scope and space that’s appropriate, without a burden being placed on the immediate neighbors,” she said.

Collins stressed that the company will continue to listen to residents in the area.

“Everything we got from the community meeting was important to hear,” he said, “and there’s darn little we can’t be responsive to.”

Community Events, April 2014

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