Updated: Not living the dream on a San Juan Island farm

It looks idyllic - a bright white farmhouse, gambolling sheep on sloping fields, a restored historic barn, two red Adirondack chairs set up by the pond. Looks can be deceiving. What should have been a dream come true for the Amaro family has instead been a nightmare due to actions by the county Land Bank, the county Prosecutor's office and strangely enough the Mayor of Friday Harbor. 

View of Amaro's farm from Mount Grant Preserve. Sharon Kivisto photo

John Lance Amaro is a history buff and a fifth-generation farmer. Rami Amaro is an attorney who was ready for a change. Both had overcome serious health issues - 10 years ago Rami underwent stem cell treatment for multiple sclerosis. The risky treatment had a 20 percent mortality rate. John,  an Air Force pilot until a bad fall from a ladder, had spent a year recovering from paralysis.

They started searching for an historic farm that they could restore and farm. It looked like they found the perfect setup on San Juan Island. The Lawson family was looking for a buyer for the farm on West Valley Road that had been in the family since it was homesteaded in the 1800s.

The area circled in yellow is the entrance from West Valley Road and the parking lot.  The white "x" shows the parcels included in Mount Grant Preserve.  (Editor's note: I don't know what the blue circles are.) 

Most of the Lawson family was pleased with how the Amaros had rebuilt the farmhouse using the original footprint and had restored the outbuildings including the large barn which is now on the National Historic Register.

Tommy Lawson  had grazed his cattle herd in the pastures in order to keep the land in agricultural resource status. According to the Amaros, he asked them if he could keep the herd there.  

Cow and nursing calf in 2015. Photo courtesy of Rami Amaro

Appalled at the condition of the animals and the lack of care, the Amaros gave him two months to find new pasture. 

"We were  hand feeding and watering all the moms with babies. It was horrific," said Rami. The entire herd was in bad condition, she said.

According to the Amaros, they have a water right for 40 acres of fields and domestic supply  conveyed from Cady's Marsh to the farm through pipes. 

Tommy Lawson poured concrete into the pipes which resulted in cutting off the water supply to the 40 acres. Lawson's attorney, Carla Higginson says Richard Lawson gave up the water right in 2005 when he stopped using the water. The water rights are detailed in the 1950 certificate of Surface Water Rights.  

Tommy Lawson poured concrete into the pipes as a safety measure according to Higginson. He was concerned the pipes had asbestos in them. Since Lawson's pond is a back up supplier for water for the Town of Friday Harbor, Tommy Lawson wanted to protect the town's water asbestos contamination.

The Amaros have gone to court to resolve the issue.  

Another water-related problem is among the issues the Amaros have with the Land Bank. The Amaros had a quit claim deed with Tommy Lawson to trade a long skinny strip of land along West Valley Road for another piece of property. During a break in a series of discussions among the Amaros, Land Bank Director Lincoln Bormann, Assistant Civil Prosecutor Jon Cain, and San Juan Preservation Trust staff, the Land Bank bought the property. 

Asked why the Land Bank would buy something out from under the Amaros,  Bormann said, "They didn't have a contract. There was one piece of paper, a deed with a signature on it."

The Land Bank is funded by payment of a one percent Real Estate Excise Tax on the purchase price of the real estate being bought. The buyer pays the Land Bank REET.  

Bormann noted that because the property was in the designated forest land program, the Amaros would have had to pay  years of back taxes which had been deferred through the DFL program.  Because the Land Bank is a government entity, the back taxes did not need to be paid.  

Some of the Amaro's water pipes go through the width of the piece of property purchased by the Land Bank. The couple asked the county to agree that they had an implied easement. 

The county refused to do so.  Bormann said, "We don't know if they have a water right." 

A photo of the Certificate of Surface Water Right is posted at the end of this article. The water right goes with the land. (Appurtenant means pertaining to something that attaches. In real property law  this describes any  right  or restriction which goes with that property.) The water right includes water for  the purposes of domestic supply,  a pond, and irrigation of 40 acres.

Cain wrote a March 15, 2018 email replying to Rami's request that the county agree to a stipulation regarding the easement, "Regarding the easement question, we don't quite have enough information to make a decision yet. I did not see anything in the documents you sent specifically indicating that your family had purchased the water right. Are there any other documents relating to the purchase that you can send me that might be helpful?"

The Land Bank and the Amaros ended up with adjoining property, when the Lawson family, selling land after the death of the family patriarch Richard Lawson,  sold Lawson's Ridge to the Land Bank.  Originally planned as a 12-unit subdivision, a road going to the top had been constructed. 

The Land Bank,  partnering with the San Juan Preservation Trust, conducted a fundraising campaign and purchased what is now called the Mount Grant Preserve.

Hikers gazing down from Mount Grant. Sharon Kivisto photo

The Amaros were aware the Land Bank was planning to try to raise the money to purchase and conserve the land but didn't realize it would be managed the way it has been. The land where the entry road and parking lot are  is on the Amaro's property. (In the yellow circle on the map).

They had problems with vehicles parking in front of the gate and blocking access to Geraldine Lane. The lane parallels the border between the Amaro's and the Land Bank property. They found litter including  piles of human feces, needles, used condoms and more. 

Vehicles blocking gate, condom found on ground, human feces. Photos courtesy of John Amaro 

The loose dogs running on their property were also a problem as were the bags of dog poop left behind.  

Loose dog and bag of dog poop. Photos courtesy of John Amaro 

To deal with the litter, the couple asked the Land Bank to install a garbage receptacle. The Land Bank refused.  Last week in an interview, Bormann said the Amaros are exaggerating the problem.

Asked why the Land Bank refused, Bormann said they never have and never will  put a trash container on Land Bank property. He said people from elsewhere would take advantage and dump their trash in the container. But the main reason is because San Juan County is the only "Leave No Trace" county in the nation and therefore the Land Bank needs to follow those principles and educate the public.    

The Seven Leave No Trace Principles

Plan ahead and prepare.

Travel and camp on durable surfaces.

Dispose of waste properly.

Leave what you find.

Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).

Respect wildlife.

Be considerate of other visitors. 

While not comfortable with providing trash containers, the Land Bank did install a porta potty on the Amaros property without their permission. It has since been moved to another location. 

The Amaros wrote several letters to the Land Bank asking for four things.  

  1. A garbage receptacle. 
  2. A fence between the properties.
  3. No pit toilets sited where they could be seen or smelled from the Amaros property.
  4. The Amaros indemnified by the county.

After multiple letters and three meetings with 15 participants at the late Ernie Gann's property, there was still no movement on the four issues. The Land Bank delayed the third meeting because Bormann had another commitment. During the more than month-long delay the Land Bank purchased the strip of land by the road. 

Rami wrote to Jon Cain and suggested mediation. He said he'd talk to his client, the Land Bank, about it. Rami believed the two parties were going ahead with mediation and spent several hours over three days seeking to find a mediator familiar with similar situations. She found three and selected one. After she spoke to the mediator, the woman called Cain.

Cain was taken aback when the mediator called and said  "Hi, I'm your mediator." He said this was very unusual. The way the county approaches mediation is both parties agree on a mediator and the issues to be mediated. 

Cain said prior to the woman's call, he had asked Rami several times for a list of issues she wanted to mediate. 

He said, "The county never got the list so we said 'No, thank you."

Asked why the county wouldn't just figure out a selection process agreeable to both parties,  Cain referred again to the absence of a list of issues.  

Rami was taken aback when told about  Cain's explanation, "We wanted four things: garbage can, liability protection or indemnity, no bathroom where we could see or smell it, and a fence establishing the boundary between us. I am sitting here shaking my head in disbelief that he would claim not to know that," she said. 

Another issue that had been written about and discussed by all parties was the interpretation of the easement the subdivision had on the Amaro's property - the entrance and the parking lot. The Amaros were concerned that the whole world was being invited in.

They said a prime example of the kind of situation they were concerned about happened on July 20, 2018. 

The Amaros accompanied by  two people from out of town  they had just met that day, a new county employee and a long time county resident were taking an ATV tour of the Amaro's property. They came across a man smoking marijuana. John asked him not to do so on his property because of the fire hazard. The man put out the joint, apologized and left. The group passed a second man as the ATV neared the gate.

From John's statement to the Sheriff's Office:

I drove past him without saying anything to him, but as I approached the gate he began walking extremely fast in an obvious effort to catch up with me. Before I could get out of the ATV to open the gate he aggressively confronted me, putting his face in mine and shouting that the other man had every right to smoke marijuana as it was legal in Washington to smoke on public land and that this was public land owned by the Land Bank.  I informed him that this was my private property and it is not legal to smoke marijuana on another person's private property.

...As he was walking towards his van he screamed that he was going to burn my house down, and once he got into his van he drove it in front of my ATV, blocking me from leaving. He then yelled that I better watch my back because if he met me in town he would kick my ass....

The Amaros went to San Juan County District Court seeking to obtain a protection order. The judge granted their request. As they stood in the hall outside of the courtroom, the man confronted them and started recording video. The Amaros went back inside the courtroom. The judge then issued an order requiring the man to surrender his weapons. 

The Amaros expected the Prosecutor's office to pursue charges against the man of assault and making threats. They asked then county Assistant Criminal Prosecutor Carolyn Jewett (now District Court Judge Jewett) about prosecution. She kept putting them off, finally explaining that the case was too difficult to prosecute. 

When asked this week about his office's decision not to prosecute the man, Prosecutor Randy Gaylord sent a copy of a letter he had written to Sheriff Ron Krebs: 

We are declining to file any charges in Superior or District Court arising out of the verbal statements described in the reports: The 7/20/18 incident began and ended as an argument between individuals who apparently were strangers prior to the encounter. The contents of that argument, while disputed, do not rise to the level of any crime. The verbal statements between the suspect, [SF], and the witness, [JT], also fail to rise to the level of a prosecutable crime.

The analysis and evaluation of the case is problematic given the way the incident was voluntarily extended into social media as well as in civil court proceedings.

The motivations of involved persons are a concern for any prosecution, and here that factor is heightened.

In sum, given the personal animus between the parties, the conflicting stories, and personal motivations of all, even if elements of a specific crime could be shown it is unlikely a jury would find sufficient evidence to justify any conviction. The initial complainant has sought the civil remedy of an anti-harassment order and prosecution would serve no additional public purpose.

The incident reaffirmed to the Amaros that there were problems with the world at large being invited to Mount Grant Preserve. Land Bank staff had offered space for weddings, film crews, and were discussing developing a campground to be used by conservation groups. The crews have been staying at English Camp.

When asked how the Land Bank could have a campground when camping on Land Bank property is not allowed by the county code, staff allegedly told the Amaros the code would just have to be changed. When Bormann was asked last week, he said it was just an idea the staff tossed around. 

So without any possibility of mediation, and upset by what they perceived to be the Land Bank's lack of proper management of the preserve, the Amaros filed suit in San Juan County Superior Court. They are seeking a judgment that agrees with their interpretation of the easement which allows access to the subdivision's residents and their guests. 

If they win, the Land Bank will have to find another entrance to the preserve. Rami and John noted the county created the possibility of losing the current access point by refusing to mediate the four points mentioned above. 

Asked about the lawsuit, Cain said, "There's a risk in every lawsuit but the county thinks the terms of the easement are clear and allows the county to use it as they have been." He said it has similarities to the Mount Ben situation which concerned access using a private road.

"The county prevailed in that case." Cain said.

So how does the Mayor of Friday Harbor factor in? The farm and Mount Grant are more than five miles from the Town's limits. 

On Sunday, June 2, 2019, Mayor Farhad Ghatan drove out to West Valley Road on his way to Snug Harbor. He explained what happened. "For the second time in a month I noticed large amounts of freshly cut grass in the right of way in front of the old Lawson farm at around 10:00 am. Because this was the same weekend as the bikefest I became quite angry that the homeowner should have such disregard for passers-by." He took a photo of grass clipping on the edge of the road. The photo included  a view of the farm  which had the result of revealing the location. He posted the photo on Friday Harbor Rant and Rave's Facebook page with the comment: "How rude". 

The Amaros, who had been putting their mower away when the photo was taken and getting out the blower to blow the grass off the road, sent a private message to Ghatan. They wrote that next time he should find a kinder way to ask them to blow the grass, and that an apology was in order. (There is no county law regarding grass clippings on the roadway.) 

Ghatan's response: “You have a lot to learn about living here with all your abuses of your neighbors (my friends), county taxpayers and the legal system. I will happily remove my post. Apology, don't get me started.”

Editor's note: Since this article was posted, someone drove into the Amaro's fence and threw a rock at their sheep and on Saturday a campaign was started to "record the Amaros" and people are driving by the farm with their windows rolled down using their cellphones to record the entire length of the property.


  

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