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Originally published Monday, March 7, 2011 at 6:11 PM

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Nicole Brodeur

Possibilities replace prisoners in island's future

Now that the prison is about to be dismantled, some 40 entities are vying for the land.

Seattle Times staff columnist

As their boat pulled away from McNeil Island the other day, state officials started wondering aloud.

The closing ceremony for the island's prison had just ended. The inmates had been moved to Walla Walla, stopping an $8.6 million annual drain on the state budget, largely due to McNeil's water-only access for prisoners, staff and supplies, and reduced housing for employees.

The officials took in what remains, and saw what is a bit of a blue moon in this region:

Acre after acre of pristine, waterfront land that will revert to the federal government. Fifty houses where prison staffers once lived. A warden's mansion, empty for years, and where there are now "more bats than light bulbs," quipped Department of Corrections (DOC) spokesman Chad Lewis.

On adjacent land, a sprawling wildlife sanctuary — including a giant seal rookery — protected by the federal government.

And, finally, just a five-minute car ride from the prison site sits the Washington State Special Commitment Center, where some 300 residents who have served time for violent sex crimes will continue to be detained.

Ah, but put those neighbors out of your mind and imagine the possibilities of the place.

"It was the talk of the people on the boat," said Belinda Stewart, the prison's former superintendent and now the DOC's communications and outreach director.

"A retreat center, a place for weddings, a place to make movies," she said, ticking off suggestions for the island where she once lived in employee housing. "There's too much history there. You don't want to lose it."

Now that the prison is about to be dismantled, some 40 entities are vying for the land. They include Native American tribes; federal, state and local governments; and environmental and development groups who have been watching McNeil's availability like Manhattanites watch a rent-controlled building.

Eric Erler, the executive director of the Capital Land Trust, is smack in the middle of it, the Switzerland in what could be an all-out war for some of the most beautiful waterfront land in Puget Sound.

"It's really unprecedented," Erler said, noting McNeil's 13 miles of intact marine shoreline habitat, including feeder bluffs that prevent erosion.

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Erler and his Capital Land Trust, a nonprofit that works to protect and conserve land, is helping Sen. Karen Fraser, a Thurston County Democrat, introduce legislation that would assess the site, lay out the planning process and determine what exactly is allowed on the land.

Maybe something like what the McMenamin brewing brothers have done all over the region: Convert older facilities into breweries, complete with hotels. In 1990, they converted a 74-acre site that was once the home of Oregon's Multnomah County Poor Farm into Edgefield, a vinting, distilling, gardening, lodging and golfing facility.

Or it could go as it did on Maury Island where, after more than a decade of legal wrangling, plans to create the largest U.S. gravel mine and industrial barging facility were defeated in December. King County bought the land, which will be a protected park.

The same sort of battle could brew on McNeil Island, depending on what's allowed.

"There's a lack of detail of what uses can and can't take place," Erler said. "It makes sense to think about the best future for it."

Of course, he has his own ideas: "We want to make sure that McNeil Island's importance to the health of Puget Sound is at the forefront of the discussion."

There's no chance that the future of McNeil Island will drift away. But it shouldn't move too quickly, either, Erler said.

"We don't want to get this wrong."

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Just keep the shades down.

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About Nicole Brodeur

My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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