Relocating to Orcas Island
May 3, 2018 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about your experience living on Orcas Island. i want details deeper than what the internet knows.

Hi All,

My husband and I are considering relocating to Orcas Island and want to get some info from folks who have lived/spent time in the San Juan Islands. We have 2 kids (ages 1 and 3). My husband is an electrical engineer and I am staying home with the kids until they are in school full time.
What are your impressions of the San Juans, specifically Orcas Island? I would especially like to know about the cost of living, the disposition of the residents, and the quality of the schools.
Are the people friendly? Is the social environment cliquish, or are the locals welcoming to newcomers? Do people know eachother like other small communities? Is it cliquish? What are themes of the culture in the area?
Is it difficult to obtain building permits for people who do a lot of DIY? (We would probably by a beat up old cabin and renovate it if we move there-we’ve filled 2 homes prior . . . I know, its unusual, but it’s a thing we do).
I'm concerned the cost of living would be so high that both of us would need to work-is that a fair assumption? Are there jobs in human resources, or social work? Is the job market impossible?
Are the schools OK? Are families satisfied with the quality of education their kids are getting? Does the public support the schools? What are challenges educators face?
How often do you go to the mainland?
Thanks for the info!
posted by neanderloid to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Point of clarification: is your plan to get a job for the engineer on the tiny island then move, or move then hope for a job? Both sound tough, tbh. Tiny economy, based on multi-generational family/friend units, etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:13 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]

I’ve lived on Vashon and visited Orcas many times. It’s a small island community with a tiny economy.

I know you didn’t ask about logistics, but I wanted to mention these just in case there’s a secret deal-breaker: Orcas has one of the longest travel times to and from Seattle, so I would factor that in when considering your husband’s commute and where to look for work, if he hasn’t found something already. You will have to reserve your trips to and from the island in advance, and during the busy season (which we’re now entering), you won’t be able to spontaneously get off the island easily. I’ve been in situations where we forgot to make a reservation and had to spend an extra 24 hrs on the island because they were booked till then. I would also think hard about which side of the island to live on, or how far away from “town” you’d like to be. I’ve been trapped on the East side of the island before because the only road to the West side was closed for several hours.

That being said, it has some amazing hiking trails, a skate park and places to downhill bike. Very quiet and peaceful with beautiful views and sunsets. I haven’t seen very many kids there, but I don’t have any myself. The people are friendly but keep to themselves. If you can handle the travel hurdles above, I think you’d love it.
posted by Snacks at 6:08 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]

Orcas has a school that is considered excellent. I myself would love to live in Friday Harbor, in the village itself. (A family member has a place near Roche).

The economy in such rural, seasonal-tourism places (I grew up in one in the Northeast) is centered around town and county government including the school system, service jobs, healthcare and eldercare, tradesmen with their own business, and the few professionals like doctors and lawyers. If there's a job you could do remotely that would be ideal.

Reading the San Juan Islander, the Journal of the San Juan Islands or other sites might be helpful. Perhaps you have already been doing this.
posted by jgirl at 6:21 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

Point of clarification: Husband is interviewing for a job on Orcas Island with the power company, so if it goes well, there will be a job waiting there for him, but not for me at the moment. I'm pretty flexible though, and would be willing to accept whatever I could find (We're country people from Idaho, so we're used to difficult travel and a small economy.) Thanks for the info-I really appreciate it!
posted by neanderloid at 7:34 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

One thing to consider is the naval air station on Whidbey Island can get really loud during the winter months -- the colder air allows sound to travel further. We can hear the jet taking off or practicing carrier landings over here in Victoria throughout January and February.
posted by JamesBay at 11:04 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]

This doesn't answer your question at all, but in my younger, more vagrant-ish days, I hitchhiked lots around the PNW and always found getting rides around the San Juans to be easy as pie--the first or second car that passed would stop. Sometimes they'd be vacationers from Georgia, and straight up tell me they'd never pick up hitchhikers off-island. It made traveling there glorious, to encounter so many welcoming folks so happy to help a scrappy stranger. Part of that, I think, is that the island is so small many people know one another, at least by sight/reputation, so the mutual support and responsibility that comes of personal relationships is a lot stronger than it'd be in the city.
posted by tapir-whorf at 7:24 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]

I emailed a friend who lives on San Juan Island, here is what she has to say:

I will try to answer all the questions as best I can. We are on San Juan, and all the islands are a bit different. I have spent some time on Orcas, so I’ll try to answer for Orcas, but answers may have a San Juan twist.

Living on the islands is a lot like going back in time. Not a lot of cultural diversity (very little actually). Most people are friendly. I suppose it can be cliquish but we were welcomed as new comers with kids 13 years ago. I think having kids can make it easier - people will want to get to know you, set up play dates etc. I would say Orcas is funkier than San Juan. More artists, eclectic people, etc. (I love it).

Cost of living feels insanely high. A gallon of gas runs about $3.50-$3.75, groceries are more expensive, $7.99 for a gallon of organic milk. A lot of people go off island to a place like Costco to get groceries - maybe once a month, but then the car and driver ferry ticket runs about $60-70 to get you off the island. There’s always amazon, and Orcas has a great farmers market in the summer and some small farm stands. Another funny thing about Orcas is that it is big, so there are pocket communities. Doe Bay, Olga, Eastsound, Deer Harbor -
There’s probably another one I’m forgetting - but they are actually all different in their Orcas way. Eastsound is kind of the unofficial town center, where school, Library, movie theater & stores are. If you want to walk to those things, I would recommend living in or close to there. Eastsound is about 11 miles from the ferry one way. You can search Zillow for price ranges if homes to see what $300,000-500,000 gets you. We own our home, and I feel like we paid an insane amount for that 11 years ago, and I don’t think we could afford to buy anything on the market now.

As for building permits and zoning laws, 20 years ago you could have done whatever you wanted and no one would have noticed. It’s not like that now. There have been lawsuits with the county over people living in their barns/work sheds etc and the county deciding those living situations are illegal. Everything has to be inspected & permitted, ask yourself if you are trying to build in a natural wetland & only a few building permits granted per year for tiny homes, etc. Your friend can go here if she/he wants to read more about that process: It’s driven a lot of people nuts, but I get it - a lot of crazy stuff was built between the late 1800s and even into the 1970s and 80s, so there’s a lot of poor planning to make up for. It is nothing like the east coast, where things were actually well built and maintained for hundreds of years.

As for schools, I believe Orcas School district is good. Some people send their kids to a private school on San Juan for Midlde & HS, and I have heard they have a good homeschooling program too. Class size will be small. I believe the community is supportive of the schools. Orcas is pretty liberal - but remember, you are in a very rural area, so you never really know how survivalist/militia minded someone is until you engage them - they are out here.

Orcas has a place called the Funhouse Commons where kids can play, take classes, etc, kind of like a Rec center. There is also a skate park. One of my favorite things about Orcas is Moran St Park. It’s huge, and gorgeous. There are a few other parks w good walking trails. One complaint I have heard is that there are hardly any public beaches on Orcas. They just expanded/remodeled their public library - which I also believe is well supported.

Job market is a tricky thing. A lot of people work for themselves/ have their own small business. Big employers on Orcas would probably be OPALCO (electric company), school district, grocery store, and jobs with the county. County seat is San Juan, so most of the county jobs are here on SJ, but there is a senior center on Orcas, and a medical center (not a hospital - which is something else to think about - might have to be flown off for an actual emergency). Full time, well paying jobs can be hard to find. A lot of people work 2-3 jobs. Some people commute to other islands for work... it would make your day longer, and we get the crappiest, oldest ferries - so they do break down. I just recently went to 1 full time job (I was working two part time jobs) & spouse has one full time job - still living month to month.... but I guess that’s normal now.

With all that said, I still feel lucky to live here. What I love most is that I feel like my kids can grow up in a way that was similar to how spouse and i grew up. They can walk home, walk to school, walk to the park, ride bikes, and just be kids. Sure, there’s drugs, crime, and all the other stuff kids and parents have to deal with, but in my mind, there is less of it. Also, it’s beautiful here - so that makes it pretty easy to enjoy being here.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:28 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]

After spending close to a week on Orcas, our family decided not to take the job.

Housing costs were too high. (there are good options for single people/couples)
Logistics: It takes nearly 4 hours to go from the ferry terminal to costco, thats if the ferry isn't late/you can get a seat.
basically, what all the PP said was spot on.

I think it would be a lovely place for a retired couple to settle.

Thanks for the help!
posted by neanderloid at 7:16 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]

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