The Americans are coming.
Next month, and for the first time in years, members of the San Juan County Council (SJCC) will take part in a joint session with the Islands Trust Council (ITC), a successful rekindling of relations between the land use authority for the Gulf Islands and legislators representing the San Juan Islands.
The three-member SJCC governs all the islands on the U.S. side between the Saanich Peninsula and mainland Washington State, representing an estimated population of around 18,000. The county includes San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw islands, as well as a single incorporated city, Friday Harbor (population 2,630) on San Juan Island. The 26-member ITC governs land use within the Islands Trust, including the 12 local Trust areas and Bowen Island, affecting an estimated 30,000 residents.
The joint session — technically a dialogue — with the San Juan County Council has been hoped for since early planning in January to be an opportunity for elected officials from both sides of the Canada-U.S. border to share information, learn from one another’s experiences and to discuss topics of mutual interest related to island governance.
Director of Trust Area Services Clare Frater confirmed for the Trust Executive Committee on Nov. 22 that the meeting was on.
“They are coming,” said Frater. “I’ve been in touch with their county clerk around topics of interest.”
Frater said the hope was the visiting council members would stay at the same hotel — “So you’ll have an opportunity for socializing after hours,” she added — but that details were still being firmed up.
The invited guests include all three SJCC members: council chair Cindy Wolf, who lives in Deer Harbor on Orcas Island; council member Jane Fuller, who grew up in Canada and lives on Lopez Island; and council member Christine Minney, who lives on San Juan Island in the town of Friday Harbor.
“I think it’ll be a really good opportunity to reinitiate this kind of engagement,” Fuller told fellow council members at a meeting SJCC held Nov. 6, at Friday Harbor’s legislative building.
The two governing bodies have a long — if not recent — record of transboundary cooperation, with several notable joint meetings taking place in both San Juan and Gulf islands. One held in December 1998 in Victoria attracted a former premier and a then-current municipal affairs minister and resulted in the official Transborder Island Agreement between the Islands Trust and SJCC.
Last updated in 2007, the cooperative agreement does not supersede international laws or treaties but rather enumerates shared values — protecting the environment, communities and unique quality of life on the islands — and provides an information-sharing framework to help design cooperative initiatives that support them.
Common themes discussed during what had once been annual meetings included affordable housing, climate change mitigation and adaptation planning, growth and tourism and — unsurprisingly — ferry issues, according to a report prepared by Frater. San Juan County manager Mike Thomas, who has been with that local government since 2013, told his council’s members he recalled earlier meetings tended toward island-specific topics, many focused on marine protection.
“In the past there’s been quite a bit of oil spill discussion, the tug discussion, the transcontinental pipeline scenarios,” said Thomas. “All subjects of common discussion at these things.”
At press time, there were still some concerns on the San Juan side that not all council members may be able to attend a summit in Canada in-person; Minney told colleagues at the Nov. 6 meeting that she did not hold a current passport and was investigating rush options.
While partnerships on public awareness and stewardship have endured between the two bodies — a single San Juan County council member participated in an ITC meeting as recently as 2022, presenting on subjects ranging from shorelines to vacation rental regulations — the last time the full ITC and SJCC sat together in-person was in 2017, at a meeting in Victoria.