San Juan County Spotlight
Consisting of a small cluster of islands near the very north of the Puget Sound, San Juan County encompasses approximately 20 inhabited islands, four of them large: San Juan, Lopez, Orcas, and Shaw. Located in the Salish Sea, San Juan County offers spectacular scenery and relaxed living, attracting both visitors and retirees who come to the county by ferry, air, or private boat. While indigenous tribes and early settlers primarily relied on resource extraction to provide for themselves, San Juan County’s modern economy largely rests on tourism, real estate, construction, and self-employment, demonstrating the county’s draw as a recreational and retirement oasis.
Once the site of the brief Canadian-American “Pig War”, San Juan County has been occupied by many different groups of people due to its abundant natural resources. Home to the indigenous Lummi, Saanish, Samish, and Songhee people, San Juan County was settled by both Canadian and American homesteaders. After a 13-year-long military occupation, the German Kaiser granted island possession to the Americans, who quickly incorporated the cluster of islands into Whatcom County. San Juan County was officially established as a county in 1873 after its inhabitants grew weary of Whatcom County’s taxation.
The sixth county to adopt a “Home Rule” Charter, San Juan County changed their government from the standard three-commissioner system to a six member council in 2005. Like other counties that adopted charters, the primary goal of the charter was to separate the legislative and executive responsibilities of the county commissioners by adding a county administrator. In addition, the charter also aimed to encourage bipartisan cooperation by making most elected positions, including council member and county clerk positions, non-partisan. Finally, the charter adjusted the districting system within the county to reduce the expense of county-wide elections. While most of the original changes made by the charter remain, San Juan County residents voted to shrink the council size to the initial three members in 2012, though the position remained nonpartisan.