By BOB SMITH
Kitsap News Group
PORT ORCHARD — When the local Fred Needham Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 2669 finally moved from its old headquarters in downtown Port Orchard to a location on Mile Hill Drive, club director John Weatherill figured the organization had solved a major headache for its members.
When the VFW first located downtown in 1952 or 1953 (references differ on the year it opened), parking on Bay Street wasn’t a big problem. “Now, with all the events downtown and the other businesses there, there’s no place to park,” Weatherill said. “We have a lot of handicapped veterans who can’t walk great distances when forced to park far away. We got a lot of complaints from our members. That’s what we were running into.”
The post sold its location on Bay Street after putting it on the market almost four years ago, then purchased a building that formerly housed a real estate business at 3100 SE Mile Hill Drive. What made the site so attractive for Weatherill and the post’s leadership was close-in parking availability just behind the building.
After the purchase was completed, the old location was closed Oct. 31; the post’s leaders aimed to begin operations on Mile Hill Drive by Jan. 1 at the latest.
But since then, renovations have been halted and the opening delayed because of a festering permitting snafu with Kitsap County. The process started off poorly. “We had to file three times with the county to get an occupancy permit for this building,” Weatherill said.
Weatherill said it looked earlier this month like the permitting process was finally about to end with a scheduled visit by the building inspector for a final buy off. When no one showed up, the club director called the county to find out why.
“I was told the inspection had been canceled because we hadn’t installed a sprinkler system and a fire alarm,” he said. Buried deep inside his collection of permitting papers was a blueprint stamped “approved” that included a note advising the organization it still needed to install the equipment.
For that breakdown, Weatherill said he takes the blame. “I thought I’d followed everything. It was an oversight.”
A document posted online by the county Department of Community Development, which is responsible for permitting, described the process that building designers and installers must follow to ensure code requirements are satisfied. The county has an online permit center that directs users through the often-complicated process.
Weatherill said the VFW wants to comply with the law, but after checking with bidding contractors, he was shocked to find out that installing a sprinkler and fire alarm system could cost upwards of $100,000.
That’s money the small VFW post doesn’t have.
And in a Catch-22 scenario, it’s money the group will never be able to generate if they can’t reopen their doors.
“If we remain closed and can’t raise any money to make payments on this building and help our veterans, then we’re a failure,” Weatherill lamented.
But the VFW official believes there may be some relief to the process going forward. The original occupancy application stated the building could contain up to 101 people at a time. After checking with the county, Weatherill found out that by downsizing the capacity to 71 persons or less, the building wouldn’t need a sprinkler system.
The original capacity number, he said, was taken from county documentation for the Bay Street location. It’s a figure that he said wildly overestimates the number of occupants the VFW will entertain at any one time at the site.
“On a really good day, we can get up to 15 members for a meeting,” Weatherill said. He said a rental event might hold 50 to 60, well short of 101.
David Lynam, the county fire marshal, confirmed that the post must have a fire alarm system installed in order to use the building in its current configuration.
VFW post members plan to remodel the downstairs area next year into a kitchen so it can generate money through dinners and events where food is served.
“To use the building as they would like to will eventually require both an automatic fire sprinkler system as well as ventilation hoods and suppression systems for cooking operations,” Lynam said.
He said a fire protection company interested in installing the required fire alarm system contacted him last week, but he hasn’t heard back from them or from the VFW post. Lynam said no permit applications have yet been filed to install the systems.
Weatherill said he has received two estimates from contractors bidding to install a sprinkler system. Their estimates varied wildly. One bid came in at $140,000, the other at $56,000.
A big part of the expense, he said, would come from meeting requirements to extend the water main from up the street to the building — and in-between, include installing a fire hydrant.
In the meantime, Weatherill’s daughter Sarah Winchester has set up a GoFundMe account and hopes to raise $100,000 to pay for the required systems. So far, just $1,000 has been raised.
If the VFW post can’t raise the needed funds, a deflated Weatherill concedes the post might have to close.
“We’re pretty low-key here,” he said of the post.
“We don’t do photo ops at every opportunity. But we do give money to food banks every year — most recently, we gave $700. Our Bowling for Veterans event late last year raised a little over $5,000. We spent $4,800 of it on Christmas presents for families in need.”
VFW counselors help veterans cope with their own personal issues. The club also controls two college scholarships, including the Theisen Memorial Scholarship.
The $3,000 scholarships are awarded each year over a two-year period to two area students planning to study medicine or business.