In a sometimes emotional forum last week attended by more than 20 islanders contemplating the future of the historic Tramp Harbor dock, commissioners of the Vashon Park District outlined the circumstances affecting the structure’s closure, which took effect Monday, Dec. 2.
Maintenance crews erected a chain-link fence across the entryway of the dock as stipulated — with no forewarning — by the district’s insurance provider, requiring that they bar the public from accessing it in its present condition, as the dock has posed a substantial safety and environmental liability risk to the small district for years.
The dock has been a fixture of life on the island for generations. It was operated for many years by the Standard Oil company before being converted into a public pier and deeded to the district by King County in 1995.
Some who spoke at the meeting have lived on Vashon for decades and shared stories about fishing at the dock in the summers or scuba diving under it. Others said they are relatively new to the community but that the dock has become a part of the attraction of living on the island.
Most were hoping for an obvious path forward that was not immediately clear, even if it meant losing the dock they have always known in the process. Commissioners collected the contact information of those in attendance and are forming a citizen committee to disseminate information about the next steps, rally support and advocate for the dock in letters to elected officials.
At the start of the forum, Executive Director Elaine Ott-Rocheford untangled many of the threads in the story of the dock’s decline, beginning with an Engineer Condition Assessment Report in 2015 that found nearly a dozen of the 98 creosote pilings were compromised. Of those, six were observed to be approaching failure. Moreover, repairing the pilings at a cost of $312,000 was not an option, said Ott-Rocheford, noting the state lease of the tidelands under the latter half of the dock that has hung up commissioners since the last agreement expired in 2013.
Without that lease, the dock will have to come down, but agreeing to the conditions of the latest draft puts all liability associated with hazardous materials and the tidelands entirely on the district. Any gains from repairing the pilings would be short-lived, said Ott-Rocheford, if the Washington Department of Natural Resources moved to take down the dock should commissioners pass on signing the lease, though she noted the state “has backed off the pressure” of signing a lease in the wake of the dock’s closure.
“We know of the creosote leaching contamination, including what would be stirred up from removal. We don’t know about oil contamination — pockets beneath the sediment [or] buried tanks — we don’t know what is down there,” she said.
The state conducted soil sediment testing last month around the dock and the district is now awaiting a report about its findings, though Ott-Rocheford has said in the past that she was assured by the state that the level of creosote contamination in the vicinity of the dock will not likely have changed much from previous testing.
Still, environmental contamination is one of the dock’s biggest challenges. Ott-Rocheford added that outreach to other communities which have fought their own uphill battles for lease agreements with the state over public piers, including the Port of Bremerton, Metro Parks Tacoma, and Bainbridge Parks, has yielded few results, as the pernicious Tramp Harbor Dock, with all of its problems and conflicts, is a unique case.
Islander Jason Brown said that he believes finding a way to fix the dock rather than replace it will be much more cost-effective as well as safer for the environment, as removing the pilings could disturb the contaminated sediment or a hidden deposit of oil. He recommended the option of wrapping the piles, a less costly alternative than outright replacing them.
Commissioners have discussed the idea in previous meetings, and Ott-Rocheford shared that the state has expressed it would consider pile wrapping assuming the level of deterioration was not too great. She noted that the dock will still need to be shorter than its current length of 340 feet to protect a geoduck bed below it. That concerned Paul Engels, who said in the event of a natural disaster where both ferry docks on the island were rendered impassable, the Tramp Harbor Dock could serve as the only point on the island with the adequate depth to accommodate a large vessel.
“If you need to bring in an emergency ship, and the ferry docks weren’t available, where would it come in?” He said.
Ott-Rocheford talked about the possibility that, without a lease, the state would pursue other avenues for help removing the dock, since it is unlikely the district would be able to shoulder the expense of such an undertaking. One possibility is that the state approaches the county — the former leaseholder of the dock — for assistance. But Ott-Rocheford cautioned that no conversation about involving the county at that or any level has happened and did not know how the situation would play out should the district refuse to sign the lease.
Craig Kenny is skeptical of the county’s help as it is. He said he was involved in a project earlier this year, with help from the conservation district, to remove 90 feet of creosote piling in Raab’s Lagoon that was postponed by typical bureaucratic gridlock.
“It took six years to get permits to remove it. The actual work took 12 hours,” he said, adding that he believed the dock’s long life warranted its protection as a historical landmark.
“We have 50 miles of shoreline. We should be allowed to have one public dock. I can’t express how saddened I would be if that dock went away,” he said.
Ott-Rocheford noted that in six years, she has met with two different architects, several marine contractors and offered to partner with Vashon Island Fire & Rescue for a future boat launch in order to save the dock, but to no avail. She said that due to working through the lease conditions the district has not been in a position to actively fundraise for repairs or replacement of the dock apart from allocating $20,000 for legal fees next year stemming from the district’s hiring of an environmental attorney. But Andrew Colbert, an avid user of the dock in the summertime, said the district’s inaction failed the community.
“I think it’s a travesty we are at this point where the dock is being closed, and you have given us no other recourse,” he said, invoking the district’s levy that was passed last month. The district attempted to obtain funds to devote to work on the dock as part of their 52-cent April levy run that failed. No such funding was a part of the district’s recent 45-cent levy.
“The end product is the only fishing pier on the island. It’s well worth whatever money you come up with whether through levies or bonds or state money,” he said.