Polarization - division into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs - has been a problem in the San Juan Islands for ages. Take any issue in the islands and in the blink of an eye there are two opposing camps, both sure that they are right and a compromise solution is highly unlikely.
In 1859, there were literally two camps - English and American - on San Juan Island as a result of a boundary dispute. But after the initial escalation, the interaction between the two groups during the 13-year Pig War was peaceful. They attended church services together, held dances, and other social gatherings.
A war over a pig seems absurd but 160 years later we have battles raging on San Juan Island over saying the Pledge of Allegiance. We have abhorrent bullying taking place against a family that wants to preserve a historic farm. We'd be hard pressed to say we are as peaceful as our beautiful surroundings might lead people to expect.
My article, Not Living the Dream on a San Juan Island Farm, explained the problems the Amaro family was having with the San Juan County Land Bank.
Since the article was posted in June, the situation between the Land Bank and its supporters and the Amaro Family Farm has not settled down. Instead the bullying has increased. Last month, the Beaverton Valley Rock, the iconic boulder used as a canvas by multitudes of islanders over the past decades was defaced with a hateful graphic. It was painted white, "Amaro" was encircled with a red line and crossed out with a big red X.
In the most hopeful and heartwarming incident in this whole unsavory dispute, a young man saw it and covered it up with "Love Thy Neighbor."
Woodworker Allan Smith, who has been doing an incredible job of restoring the historic barn on the Amaro Farm, wrote a letter to the editor calling out this hateful act. When posted with the photo, it garnered hundreds of comments on Facebook.
It was easy to tell which side people were on. The Amaros were praised for the job they've done on restoring the farm and for their volunteer work in the community.
Those that appear to believe that the county's Land Bank can do no wrong, aimed their comments at the word choice in the headline or the right of someone to comment at all. (BTW: there is no legal definition of "hate speech".)
They questioned Gina's right to comment, going so far as to inform Facebook that hers was a fake account. Gina isn't a bot and she definitely has the right to comment. She is the biological mother of the Amaro's youngest son.
It'll take a couple of weeks for Facebook to go through its process and reinstate her account.
Brief summary of the conflict
The Amaro family purchased the historic Lawson Farm on West Valley Road about the same time the Land Bank purchased the land which was renamed Mount Grant Preserve. The entrance and parking lot to the preserve is on property belonging to the Amaros. After ongoing problems, the family asked for four things from the Land Bank. A garbage receptacle placed on the preserve, indemnity for the Amaros, placement of pit toilets out of sight and smell of the Amaro Farm and a fence separating the preserve from the farm.
The Land Bank refused all four requests, frustrated the Amaros turned to the only path available and filed suit in court. As a result of refusing to engage in mediation, the county is running the risk of losing the current access road and parking lot to the preserve.
The Land Bank explained its rationale. This is a Leave No Trace county, so garbage cans will never be placed on Land Bank property, according to Land Bank Director Lincoln Borrman. As is common when dealing with the Land Bank, the rhetoric doesn't always match the paper trail. The draft management plan did mention the possibility of garbage and recycling receptacles.
The Land Bank installed a fence between Mount Grant Preserve and Tommy Lawson's property. The reason according to Borrman is they were concerned about problems from ATVs.
The toilet issue is being addressed a bit disingenuously by the Land Bank. The Amaros refer to pit toilets. The Land Bank says they aren't going to install pit toilets. Turns out their plan calls for vault toilets. Basically the pit is encased in a vault.
As for indemnification, when interviewed last month, Borrman said the Land Bank doesn't do that. This month, turns out the Land Bank does and has indemnified property owners who have granted trail access to the Land Bank.
So it is hard to understand why the Land Bank refused to enter into mediation. The reason given that the county didn't know what issues the Amaros were interested in having mediated is a bit silly. The four reuests were reiterated for months.
The county's confidence in achieving a favorable outcome in court is based on the Land Bank's victory in the Mount Ben access case. It is interesting to note that this "victory" has not resulted in access. The judge told the county, the private road wasn't sufficient and would have to be improved.
It is hard to believe the Land Bank and the county is behaving the way they have. I've had people ask me how I know what I've written is true.
You should know that I found this whole conflict very hard to believe when I started working on the original article. But as I've conducted interviews, followed paper trails and asked many followup uestions, it has become abundantly clear the Amaro Family has been treated extremely unfairly and bullied. The deception and disingenuous behavior by the county and the Land Bank is outrageous.
So what can be done. We don't have Kaiser Wilhelm I available to settle this dispute. We'll have to see what the court decides when the case comes up later this month.
But in the meantime, we can all do our part to stop the bullying. No family deserves to be treated like the Amaros have. No government agency staff should ever behave so arrogantly. And taxpayer money shouldn't be wasted on court battles when mediation is an alternative.
Here are some questions islanders can ask the Land Bank staff at their fair booth.
1. Why didn't the Land Bank pursue mediation to resolve the four issues the Amaros brought up numerous times - indemnification, boundary fence, siting of toilets, garbage receptacle.
2. Why did the Land Bank put up a fence between Tommy Lawson's property and Mt. Grant, but refuse to do so between the Amaro Farm and Mt. Grant?
3. Why does the Land Bank offer indemnification to property owners who have trail easements but won't offer it to the Amaros?
4. Why does the Land Bank propose garbage receptacles in the draft plan for Mt. Grant but when asked state that there will never be garbage receptacles on Land Bank property?
4. Why is the Land Bank confident they will win in court and get access, when they weren't successful in achieving access to Mt. Ben after a court fight?
5. Why is the Land Bank acting in such a hostile way to a family that is restoring a historic farm?