Why There Are No Jet Skis in San Juan County


November 16, 2015 by islandersvoice1


Editor’s Note: The citizens of San Juan County, through our elected county council, recently began public deliberations of the State-required update to the county’s existing Shoreline Master Program (SMP). So this is a good time to inform those who haven’t lived on our islands for more than 17 years, and to refresh the memories of those that did, about certain events in 1995-98 that dramatically and permanently protected the ecology, appearance and tranquility of our marine environment. These events also demonstrate the power of a small group of dedicated local citizens to rally public support to defeat the opposition of a large corporation and other entrenched interests.

In the mid-90s, a group of dedicated citizens, led by Mary Ann Anderson, successfully convinced the County Commission to permanently ban the use of jet skis in our local waters. We all owe Mary Ann and her supporters, including then County Commissioner Rhea Miller, a huge debt of gratitude. The following is the story of the jet ski ban as told by Mary Ann, who continues to live on San Juan Island.

The San Juan Island Jet Ski Ban of 1998 by Mary Ann Anderson

It all started in the summer of 1995 when five jet skiers came racing into North Bay, whooping, hollering, jumping wakes and going around and around in circles. (North Bay is inside Jackson’s Beach on San Juan Island.) When they roared back out of North Bay four hours later, they left in their wake a dead-zone. Absolute quiet. There were no eagles, no seals, no heron sitting on the cannery roof, no nothing. It was terrifying.

I was surprised and concerned that jet skiers could come into North Bay and use the bay for their personal playground for extreme sport, with no thought to the environmental deprivation caused by their reckless behavior or the deafening noise shattering the quiet rural neighborhood where my home is. But, to my horror, shortly after their joyride on North Bay, I found out that the Yamaha & Kawasaki dealers in Skagit Valley were going to sponsor the first annual Iceberg Jet Ski Race on Sunday, July 16, departing from Anacortes at 10:45 am, racing through the Straits of Juan de Fuca through Cattle Pass to North Bay, landing on Jackson’s Beach at 11:30 am.

I knew I had to do something. Whales had been seen in that area all week. San Juan Islanders needed to know what was happening. I made up and distributed a flier around town that read: IMPORTANT NEWS BULLETIN. PLEASE JOIN IN DEMONSTRATION FOR THE WHALES. WHEN: SUNDAY, JULY 16TH, 11:00 AM. WHERE: JACKSON’S BEACH. WHY: PEACEFUL PROTEST AGAINST THE FIRST ANNUAL JET SKI OFFSHORE RACE THROUGH CATTLE PASS TO JACKSON’S BEACH. WEAR BLACK.

I asked our two newspapers, The Journal and The Sounder, to meet us at Jackson’s Beach. I called News Alert on Channel 5 and asked them to come to our protest (they did, in a helicopter). I passed out buttons that said “WHALES ARE NOT SPEED BUMPS”, with a red slash across a jet ski. At the same time, unbeknown to me, Janet Thomas, superintendent of San Juan County Parks, had stopped the launching of jet ski whale watching tours from San Juan County Park on the west side. Within hours, she was confronted by the Kawasaki attorney and was subpoenaed twice.

The next day, I called County Commissioner Rhea Miller. She listened to my complaints seriously and advised me to start a petition of islanders who felt the same way about jet skis and present it to the County Commission. I immediately made up a petition. With the help of many other concerned islanders, we gathered more than 1,700 signatures and presented them to the County Commission at its weekly meeting.

The petition read: Whereas, the undersigned, hereby protest the invasion of personal watercraft (jet skis) into our tranquil marine environment. The jet skis not only disturb the shoreline property owners, but also the orca, seals, sea lions and other marine life, as
well as the breeding and nesting environments of our eagles. Therefore, we petition the San Juan County Commissioners to work with other governmental bodies in order to ban the operation of jet skis in the San Juan Islands.

I could see that a fight was brewing among islanders and knew I had to get the word out. I turned my downtown antique shop, The Olde Mades, into jet ski headquarters. I posted fliers on my windows, telling islanders that their thoughts and experiences were essential to our case. I asked them to call the County Commissioners immediately, and that only grassroots solidarity could halt the coming invasion. I put quarter-page ads in both our newspapers and I called our state legislators, begging for intervention.

Very shortly, the island became a hubbub of activity and the battle lines were drawn. You either were for or against the ban. There was no in-between. I resigned from the San Juan Island Yacht Club because they would not support the ban, my husband’s work place was picketed, I was reported to the State Gambling Commission for having a raffle to raise money for the ban. It got nasty.

The nation’s shorelines and waterways now had more than a million jet skis, accounting for 34 percent of all boat sales. Jet skis were the fastest-growing part of the boat business. These high performance machines could scream at 70 mph, dumping 25 to 30 percent of their fuel directly into the environment unburned. The newer models burned 14 gallons of fuel per hour at full throttle. With a huge 25-gallon fuel tank, this allowed jet skiers to play with their thrill craft all day long. Kawasaki advertised that its jet skis had a thrust of 800 pounds and was “a torpedo in the water.”

Jet skis became the most dangerous craft in boating history, with an injury rate 8.5 times higher than that of motorboats. U.S. Coast Guard statistics showed that in 1995, one out of every eight 1995 models sold were recalled because of defects which could cause fires, explosions, loss of steering control and sudden loss of power.

This was truly a nightmare and it was up to us, in our own local community, to decide how to protect ourselves, both from a safety and an environmental point of view.

In September 1995, the San Juan County Association of Realtors Board unanimously passed a resolution endorsing a county-wide ban on jet skis. Steve Wynn, the wealthy Las Vegas hotelier who was trying to get jet skis banned from Lake Tahoe, offered his secretary for my personal use. Russell Long, the director of Earth Island Institute, a national environmental organization that protects public waters, sent a volunteer who stayed with us to record what was happening. Commissioner Rhea Miller was quoted in The New York Times saying “This is threatening the very life-blood of this county. We are a very unique place on the face of this earth. You take away what makes this place special, and you’re just like any other place in America.” The media quickly joined in. We had caught the eye of the world.

With a county that is an archipelago of 172 islands, of which 84 are designated as wildlife refuges, in a county that has 375 miles of pristine shoreline, in a county that depends upon peace and tranquility for economic livelihood, could we really protect our island from obtrusive invasion? Could we protect ourselves from activities deemed harmful to our way of life? Could we beat an industry that was worth more than many small world countries? These were the questions! The quality of life in San Juan County depended upon the success of a total ban.

Concerned jurisdictions were watching us to see if local control could supersede state control. If we won, it would be the first time a county ban would be upheld by a state’s top court anywhere in the nation. I was featured on the front page of The Washington Post, Rhea was on “Good Morning, America.” I was interviewed by Forbes magazine and other national newspapers. I contacted many of the counties in Washington, asking them for support. Not all counties supported our decision to totally ban jet skis. When I called the Chelan County sheriff, he said, “Honey, money talks and bullshit walks, you’re wasting your time.”

The personal watercraft (PWC) industry, concerned that we were getting too much positive support and publicity, held a public hearing in our community theater. At the meeting, I was called a “boldfaced liar” by one of their high-paid lobbyist. I was told that never has there been a county to go as far as to say “no time, no place, no way”. Their lawyer, who represented 10 plaintiffs, including the Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA) and the Port of Lopez, told us to be reasonable. He said rules could be established on time and place, and suggested a ban on use from 8 pm to 8 am would be reasonable. But compromise was not even a consideration.

Although Commissioner Miller was a strong and effective proponent of a total ban on jet skis in San Juan County, she, along with many islanders, had to lobby the other two Commissioners in hopes that they would agree to the ban. In January 1996, with the support of Commissioners Rhea Miller and John Evans, the temporary ban was adopted 2-1 by the San Juan County Commission. San Juan Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord was asked to draft an ordinance, placing a two-year moratorium on jet skis. This was the strongest ban in the country.

San Juan County had now made history: Local control could supersede state control. From the summer of 1995 to the winter of 1996, supporters from all over the country were calling and offering help. More than $18,000 poured in from well wishers all over the country.

The National Marine Manufacturer’s Association (NMMA) filed a lawsuit in February 1996, calling the ban unconstitutional, vague and prejudicial. Randy Gaylord countersued in May and called for a quick ruling to defray legal expenses. The Personal Watercraft Industry (PWI), a part of the NMMA, had sales in 1995 of $17.2 billion. This had become a David and Goliath fight.

Backing San Juan County in its defense against the industry’s suit was Washington D.C. lawyer George Van Cleve, an environmental lawyer and a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division. He was joined by other lawyers nationwide in offering their services pro bono to our beloved islanders. The stakes were high.

We went to court on September 30, 1996. Much to our anguish, Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Steven Mura overturned San Juan County’s ordinance, ruling that state law appeared to imply that all vessels registered must be allowed on all public waterways. After the three-hour hearing, Judge Mura said “This has not been an easy case for me to decide. I am a stop off on the way to the Supreme Court.”


After the hearing, the headlines in the Seattle Times, closely following San Juan County’s efforts to ban jet skis, said “And the Jet Ski Battle in San Juan County Roars Along.” And it was a jet ski battle. Now that we lost, a group of locals who were opposed to the ban circulated a petition, accusing us of wasting taxpayers money, and proposed that certain bays could be set aside for the use of jet skis. Once again, we were called irresponsible and unreasonable. But this time, it wasn’t the jet ski industry, it was islanders. The Seattle PI called the jet ski ban the second “Pig War.” It made for a tense situation.

We continued to urged the County Commissioners to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Jim Skoog, a writer and iconoclastic supporter of a full ban and demanding that the fight go on, was quoted in the San Juan County newspaper, “If we don’t appeal, we’ll be snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.” Commissioner John Evans told us that we have a nature’s wonderland here and these noisy watercraft aren’t compatible with our quality of life.

In 1998, we appealed the lower court’s decision. We were going to the Washington State Supreme Court and hoped that justice would be found.

The Washington Environmental Council, Olympic Park Association and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy filed briefs in support of the ban. They argued that their participation was appropriate based upon broad public interest in the state’s waterways and the important legal principles involved. Philip Buri, who served as a law clerk in the Washington Supreme Court from 1993 to 1995, defended our case pro bono (Weden v San Juan County).

The Washington State Supreme Court heard the case in May 1998. San Juan County argued to the court that, with over 375 miles of shoreline, it would be impossible to regulate jet skis as suggested by the industry. Instead, given the delicate environment and difficult geography of the islands, the only effective regulation would be an outright prohibition. The county also argued that state law does not specifically authorize the use of jet skis; the registration fees are a tax, not an authorization. The industry contended that a ban interfered with the constitutional right to travel and that we were unreasonable.

Throughout the lawsuit, I worked with both citizens and legislators from counties throughout the country who were working on the very same issues that we were. We had become a beacon of hope. For three years, I worked every day on the jet ski ban. I could not let it go. I was obsessed.

And now we waited. Every Thursday since the Supreme Court hearing in May, I called the court clerk to see if the Supreme Court judges had made their decision. The clerk got to know me and we became friends. Two months later, in July of 1998, when I made my weekly call, the clerk said, “we’ve got some news for you. They have made their decision. You won! The Washington Supreme court upheld San Juan County’s landmark ordinance banning jet skis. The strongly worded 7 to 2 decision issued on July 9 upheld the county’s power to ban “PWCs” on every issue raised by those who sued.

The Supreme Court said “It would be an odd use of the public trust doctrine to sanction an activity that actually harms and damages the waters and wildlife of this state”. And finally, the Court found that “the PWC owners are directly responsible for the problems cased by the use of their machines. It defies logic to suggest an ordinance is unduly oppressive when it only regulates the activity which is directly responsible for the harm.”

After the court decision, the County Commissioners enacted a permanent ban that went into effect almost immediately. We had successfully pre-empted something that had potential tragic consequences for San Juan County. The wording of the Supreme Court decision was so strong that there has never been a challenge to the permanent ban and we continue to enjoy its benefits today.

2 thoughts on “Why There Are No Jet Skis in San Juan County

  1. davidgeri says:

    Thank you for this inspiring article. Your example shows that individuals can make a difference, and that big money doesn’t necessarily have to win every time. Hopefully your hard work, dogged determination, and successful outcome will inspire others today to work for the public good when confronted by wrongheaded action.


  2. maclangford says:

    If San Juan County had an official roster of heroes, Mary Ann Anderson would head the list.


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