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A look back: Skagit County’s top stories of 2018

December 31, 2018 GMT

Below are some of Skagit County’s top stories of 2018:

Northern State redevelopment reaches milestone

Efforts to redevelop the former Northern State Hospital campus into the Sedro-Woolley Innovation for Tomorrow (SWIFT) Center and open it to the public reached a milestone in 2018 with a change in ownership.

The Port of Skagit became the new owner of the historic campus in June and is now working with community partners to open the 225-acre campus to the public in 2019.

The port is also working with Skagit County, Sedro-Woolley and Sedron Technologies (formerly Janicki Bioenergy) to redevelop the campus into a hub for research, development and manufacturing of new technology.

The campus has largely been closed to the public since 1973.

Plight of endangered orcas gains attention

Following the deaths of several endangered Southern Resident orcas — the whale population that frequents the Salish Sea is now at a 34-year low of 74 whales — Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a state budget designating $1.1 billion to recovery efforts.

While the Southern Residents have been protected under the Endangered Species Act for 13 years, the whales have been impacted by noise from boat traffic, not enough salmon to eat and too much pollution in the water.

In recognition of those problems, Inslee in March called for the formation of an orca recovery task force, which includes members from Skagit County.

The task force compiled a list of recommendations for Inslee and the Legislature to consider funding in order to help restore and protect the orca population, and those recommendations helped shape Inslee’s recent state budget.

State commits to conserving Blanchard Mountain recreation areas

A long-sought effort to preserve 1,600 acres of state forest lands on Blanchard Mountain for recreation came to fruition this year.

In January, the Legislature allocated $10 million to the state Department of Natural Resources to purchase new lands for timber harvest to replace that area on Blanchard, which is where the popular Oyster Dome Trail and Samish Overlook are found.

New timber lands were needed to ensure local taxing districts would still receive timber revenue from Natural Resources.

Natural Resources has now purchased 270 acres of nearby land and worked to redesignate some trust lands in order to make up for the 1,600 acres now in conservation status.

Man faces animal cruelty charges for death of Bay View cattle

Roger Pederson of Bay View faces five felony animal cruelty charges in Skagit County Superior Court in connection with allowing dozens of cattle to die on his property and leaving them unburied.

Pederson pleaded not guilty to the charges in August. He is scheduled to go to trial March 4.

In January, the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office found dead cattle littered throughout Pederson’s property, seized about 170 living cattle and euthanized some that were in poor health.

Each of the felony charges Pederson faces is for first-degree animal cruelty. Each charge is punishable by up to five years in prison, up to a $10,000 fine, or both.

Hirst fix leaves out Skagit County

In January, Skagit County was excluded from a sweeping piece of water rights legislation that — in response to the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision — allowed residents of Washington’s 38 other counties to dig new wells for residential use.

The state Legislature established a task force to try to find solutions for the county, and the county worked with the state Department of Ecology to creat a water bank for 96 homes near Nookachamps Creek.

At the same time, Skagit County created a permitting process for onsite mitigation of water use, which would let residents use wells in exchange for returning stored rainwater to the aquifer underground.

County passes EMS levy, and cities take charge of ambulance services

Starting Jan. 1, the county’s four cities will lead the ambulance system, replacing the Central Valley Ambulance Authority as the primary provider of emergency medical services.

During discussions between the cities and the county on an increased county EMS levy, which passed in August, the county offered in July to discuss giving authority over the system to the cities.

In a letter to the county, the cities jointly requested rapid negotiations, and an agreement was ratified Oct. 8.

America’s Finest waiver passes

In December, Anacortes shipbuilder Dakota Creek Industries won a nearly two-year battle for a waiver to allow America’s Finest to fish in U.S. waters.

The waiver will forgive a mistake by Dakota Creek that involved the use of too much foreign-fabricated material in the ship’s hull, thus violating the Jones Act.

The U.S. Coast Guard will now complete a 30-day review of whether Dakota Creek or Fisherman’s Finest, the company that contracted Dakota Creek to build the vessel, knew components violated the Jones Act.

County building high-speed internet network

The Port of Skagit and the Skagit Public Utility District began construction this year on a $2.8 million fiber optic network. The network will stretch from Anacortes to Concrete and will provide high-speed internet to rural communities.

Currently, the majority of internet in Skagit County is provided through cable or copper wires.

Segments of the network in Anacortes, Burlington, Mount Vernon and La Conner are expected to be completed by early 2019. The entire network is set to be completed by 2020.

The Port of Whitman has been contracted to help manage the network.

Fentanyl takes hold in Skagit County

A synthetic opioid called fentanyl that has been wreaking havoc throughout the country was responsible for several deaths in Skagit County, including three that led to criminal charges.

In the three overdose deaths in which criminal charges were filed, the victims reportedly took pills disguised as Percocet but were in fact laced with fentanyl, a drug 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

John Mendieta, 25, of Mount Vernon; Justin O’Brien Miller, 28, of Mount Vernon; Milagros Encarnacion, 55, of Burlington; and Michelle Martinez, 40, of Burlington were each charged with controlled substance homicide in connection with three of the fentanyl-related deaths.

Salary negotiations lead to teacher strikes

School districts throughout the state underwent unprecedented salary negotiations with their teachers, which in some districts led to strikes.

In an effort to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that found the state was not fully funding basic education, the state this year pumped millions of dollars into public education in order to pay for increased salaries. Each district, however, was left to negotiate on its own, weeks before school was set to begin.

The result was sometimes weekslong negotiations, and in Skagit County teachers unions from four of the county’s seven public school districts voted to strike.

In Skagit County, the result was teachers receiving raises of 12 to 27 percent, depending on the school district.


East county towns respond to flooding, erosion issues

Winter flooding and high Skagit River flows are increasingly impacting parts of Lyman and have led Hamilton to plan a move to higher, drier ground.

Two area homes partially fell into the river this year as a result of riverbank erosion after the river reached flood levels in November 2017.

In an effort to protect infrastructure, Skagit County purchased the land from the homeowners and demolished what was left of the homes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also built a rock trench to protect the town’s Main Street during flooding.

Meanwhile, Hamilton is working with organizations to focus the town’s future growth outside of the floodplain and provide moving assistance to residents who wish to relocate to higher ground.

Voters oppose creation of county charter

Skagit County voters rejected a November ballot measure that would have authorized the formation of a group of residents to form a county charter.

By voting down the measure, voters decided not to consider structural changes to county government.

The proponents of the measure, a group called Home Rule Skagit, said a charter would have given residents the opportunity to change the size and structure of the county’s elected leadership.

The group said a charter government would give the county the opportunity to have more transparent, accountable and representative leadership.

About 66 percent of voters opposed the measure.

Banner acquires Skagit Bank

In July, Skagit Bank announced its sale to Banner Bank. The sale, which was finalized in late 2018, will close some bank locations and merge remaining Skagit Bank branches under the Banner name.

The Banner Bank location at 110 Cascade Mall Drive will close, with its operations consolidated into the Skagit Bank branch at 301 E. Fairhaven Ave.

Branch consolidation will begin in the first fiscal quarter of 2019. Some staff cuts are likely.

Murder cases proceed in Skagit County

A charge of second-degree murder against Justin Morgan Daly was dropped for the second time after he was found not competent to stand trial.

He will now be evaluated for civil commitment to a state psychiatric hospital, as was done in 2016 when his case was first dismissed for competency reasons.

Charges can be refiled if Daly is determined to be competent.

Meanwhile, a man who has been convicted three times for the 2005 murder of a Hamilton man may have another trial.

Terrance Jon Irby may face a fourth trial after a state appellate court ruled his Sixth Amendment rights were violated during his third trial in 2016 when Skagit County corrections deputies improperly opened mail from Irby to his public defender.

Suspect in cold case arrested, charged

Thanks to advances in technology, the man suspected of killing two young Canadians and dumping their bodies in Skagit and Snohomish counties in 1987 was arrested and charged in May.

On Nov. 24, 1987, the body of 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, was found in a ditch of Parson Creek Road in northern Skagit County. The body of her boyfriend, 21-year-old Jay Cook, was found two days later near Monroe.

Using “reverse genealogy” — the same technique used earlier in the year to catch a man believed to be the Golden State Killer — and a discarded coffee cup, the Skagit and Snohomish county sheriff’s offices were able to link 55-year-old William Earl Talbott to the deaths.

Talbott has been charged in both Skagit and Snohomish counties with first-degree murder. He is awaiting trial in the Snohomish County Jail on $2 million bail.

Two new schools open

Two Skagit County school districts celebrated the openings of new schools, the first time either had done so in years.

After voters in the Mount Vernon School District approved a $106.4 million bond issuance proposal in 2016, the district this year opened Harriet Rowley Elementary School — the first new school in the district in about 20 years.

In Anacortes, the district opened the new Anacortes High School, which was funded by an about $87 million bond issuance proposal approved by voters in 2015.