U.S. Customs officials, Border Protection agents and two members of the General Service Administration staff met with an overflow crowd of angry islanders in the San Juan Island Fire Station November 25.
The citizens voiced their objections to the relocation of the Customs and Border Protection office.
The Custom and Border Protection (CBP) officers have operated for decades out of a small office located under the San Juan Yacht Club on Front Street in Friday Harbor. The building is owned by the Port of Friday Harbor. The GSA has signed a lease for office space in the privately-owned building located at the corner of First and Spring streets.
The GSA conducted an island-wide search before deciding on the Spring Street building. Another of the locations considered was in Beaverton Business Park located one mile outside Friday Harbor. David McCauley, the owner of that building, wanted to know why his site wasn't chosen. The officials couldn't provide specifics since they were not the ones who made the decision. They said many factors - not just distance played a part in the decision.
One of the agents told the audience the agents were excited when they heard GSA's selection of the building because the facility would enable them to provide better service to people using this international point of entry. The current space does not provide for the separation of felons taken into custody, from the general public stopping in for information.
The new facility will include a public lobby, space for the seven regular agents and for the additional agents brought in during the summer tourist season. Four parking spaces will be reserved for the CBP employees in the underground parking area. Two of the spaces will be fenced off for the overnight parking of federal vehicles as required under federal law.
There will not be cameras on the outside of the new office. The appearance of the building will stay as is except for lettering on the new door.
Objections by citizens included:
Outrage that Homeland Security would be in the "core" of the Town of Friday Harbor.
CBP is one of the many agencies that are in the Department of Homeland Security. United States Customs Service was established Juy 31, 1789. It became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
A loss of sales tax because a government office rather than a retail store will be in the building.
Owner Gordy Petersen has sought a tenant since the lease with Windermere Real Estate was broken in 2008 as a result of the economic crash. In order to fill the space while seeking a permanent tenant, Petersen rented the space temporarily to Howard's Sell It Again at a reduced rate.
Concern the new office with its armed officers will have a chilling effect on tourism to the quaint Town of Friday Harbor and the economy will suffer.
More than 20,000 small boats enter the U.S. through Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor making San Juan Island the busiest Point of Entry in the nation in terms of small boats. Besides processing the private boats, CBP agents meet the international sailing from Sidney, British Columbia, process airplanes entering the U.S. via the Port of Friday Harbor Airport and passengers from cruise ships.
Worries about "perp walks" through town. The officers mentioned that there is a back entrance to the office from the parking garage.
One person complained about an encounter he had with the Royal Canadian Mounted police while he was rowing from Brown Island to Friday Harbor. The incident had nothing to do with Customs. It was part of the U.S. Coast Guard's and Canadian law enforcement's Shiprider agreement.
Worries about whether there were arrangements with the local hospital to use its facilities for vaginal and rectal searches. The officials said as far as they knew those type of searches were conducted in the hospital in Bellingham. The question was related to internet stories about abuses by Border Patrol officers in Arizona.
The negative impact of the loss of status as an international port of entry, which would include the loss of service from the islands to B.C. - the ferry would need to limit its stops to Anacortes only - did not seem to factor into the considerations of the 100+ people in attendance.
Town officials asked San Juan County Council member Rick Hughes to run the meeting, Hughes was able to keep the sometimes rowdy crowd under control by calling on people row by row during the two-hour meeting. Hughes questioned the lack of a public process in making the selection. He recommended the inclusion of public input, even though it might not be required, when the federal agencies are involved in similar decision-making in the future.
The Mayor of Friday Harbor, Carrie Lacher issued a letter the week prior to the meeting spelling out the fact the lease is between a private property owner and the GSA. The office is compliant with the applicable zoning.
Asked if the decision can be changed, one of the officials said it was unlikely but possible. The presenters also mentioned how hard it is to become a point of entry and that in most cases the municipality is required to provide a building for Customs free of charge.