A builder of classic cedar single racing shells is in the process of moving out of his Point Hudson shop after Port of Port Townsend staff learned the shop is at risk of catching fire or exploding.
Steve Chapin, owner of Point Hudson Boat Shop LLC, 311 Jackson St., in Port Townsend, is to move to a new shop in Glen Cove by the end of August. Fire officials informed the port that dust and volatile compounds in Chapin’s shop in the lower part of the Armory Building pose a fire and explosion risk, said Sam Gibboney, executive director for the port.
Gibboney said East Jefferson Fire Rescue had “red-tagged” the building for fire risk, and that the port had been put “on notice” about the risk of fire and explosion at the shop.
During an Aug. 9 port commission meeting, Chapin said he’d like to return to Point Hudson if he could, and port commissioners said they wanted him to return.
A fire marshal inspected the building in 2015 and found the building needed a fire escape ladder and that the building also had fire separation issues between the first and second floors, according to a port document.
Port Townsend Sails is located on the floor above the boat shop.
The port installed the escape ladder in 2016 and outlined a plan to resolve fire prevention and separation issues, and to mitigate the impact to other building tenants from the odor and fumes associated with the boat shop’s use of the premises.
At this time, the port staff discovered a 2002 building assessment that stated the problem was worse than they had thought: that the building was at risk of fire and explosion.
Gibboney said the current administration was not aware of that report until a few months ago.
“We became aware that this was not just a fire risk that we would need to mitigate, but it was also an explosion risk, and a risk that would consume the building in its entirety in an estimate of less than three minutes,” Gibboney said.
“So I’m absolutely sympathetic to the issues.… I think that we all also need to be very aware that should there be a fire or explosion – and heaven forbid there should be a loss of life – there is a very clear record that the port was aware of the risk and did nothing to appropriately mitigate it.
“As your professional administrator, I have to tell you, you must take action,” she told commissioners.
“The estimate is that nothing would survive within several hundred yards of this,” should something go wrong, Gibboney said.
“Even if the probability of that is very minute – and I think it could be very reasonably argued that that probability is not minute – and that just because it has not happened to date, this organization [the port] has absolute knowledge of that risk being identified by [fire] professionals who are trained to identify such. That puts us in one position that we have to actually make sure that that risk cannot continue. And that’s for Steve’s safety, it’s for everyone else’s safety, and it’s for protection of our property and probably multiple properties.
“It’s a heck of a position to be put in. I know that none of us like being here, but we must put our duty to safety, protection of life and property first,” Gibboney said.
Over the past few months, the port has searched for a solution to the problem, but was unable to find one, port officials said. As such, the port told Chapin in May that he must vacate the building by Aug. 31.
In order to make the building suitable for the type of work Chapin does, the port would have to spend an estimated $250,000 or more to improve the building, Gibboney said. That includes a rough estimate of about $80,000 for a “vapor barrier” and about $160,000 for fire suppression sprinklers. The shop’s bare wood timber ceiling also needs to be made more fire resistant.
An alternative would be to lease the building out for a non-industrial use, such as for retail use, where the risks are lower, she said.
Because of zoning and the Shoreline Master Program, the building must be used for water-related purposes, Gibboney said.
Port Commissioner Peter Hanke wanted Chapin to stay, but agreed with Gibboney about the risk.
“We had this report 15 years ago that said, you know, ‘This thing is dangerous.’ If it goes up, it could be explosive, and people up above could die. And if people do die, the interesting thing for us at the port is we are liable. We are personally liable because we know this report exists,” Hanke said.
But a business like Chapin’s is otherwise a great fit for Point Hudson, Hanke said.
“Walking into Steve’s building … is like walking back in time. You’re going into a true boatbuilding shop,” Hanke said, adding that he hoped Chapin could move back at some point.
The port could sign a memorandum of understanding that Chapin would return to reuse the building if it undergoes improvements.
ROWERS VOICE SUPPORT
Rower Jim Buckley expressed support for Chapin during public comment.
“Steve is the kind of tenant the port really wants. He’s a rock star” and nationally famous boatbuilder, Buckley said. The boat shop has been there 75 years, and Chapin has been there 25 years, and Buckley opined that Chapin was getting “thrown under the bus.”
“Stan Pocock said when Steve commissioned his first rowing shell at the Seattle Yacht Club … ‘We never built any boats this good.’ That’s the fourth-generation Pocock boatbuilder of the world [saying] ‘never built any boats as good as Steve’s boats,’” Buckley said.
Ted Shoulberg also spoke during public comment.
“Who is here to protect the little guy?” Shoulberg asked. “The only solution for this small item is for the port to apologize and say, ‘Steve, you move out temporarily, we’ll put in the improvements, and you can move back at the same rent.’ The historic nature of his activity is so important to this general community and also to the rowers,” Shoulberg said.
Chapin said it was too late to discuss staying at Point Hudson, as he had already found a new spot in Glen Cove.
“I’m endeavoring to respond faithfully to the firmly worded notice to terminate my vacancy, and I’m well along in that direction,” Chapin said. “I would like to somehow have an option to continue to have a presence at Point Hudson in the future, if that’s possible.
“I need to be able to work freely to use [the shop] for boatbuilding, and it’s got to be affordable. If I am the party that’s responsible for all of the upgrades, with the numbers I’ve seen, I can’t afford that,” Chapin said.
Gibboney said that, given how busy port staff members are with a Boat Haven stormwater project and the Point Hudson jetties, that they could not allocate much resources to the Armory Building, and she suggested that the Northwest Maritime Center serve as a partner to handle design and raise capital.
Hanke suggested that improving the Armory Building be added to the port’s capital improvement budget. He also suggested Chapin’s shop could be split into multiple, smaller rental units as a way of keeping costs down, as Chapin does not use all the space in the building.
The commission did not make a decision and decided it needs more time to think about possible solutions.