Ulvi: Tilting with Windmills at the San Juan Islander Featured

I am compelled to respond to an inflammatory opinion piece (June 19, 2019) paired with an editorial, by Ms. Kivisto, editor of the San Juan Islander. And now another in the last few days. The gist is that our County Land Bank employs “bullying” tactics while a few un-neighborly individuals are bad-mouthing the Amaros looking to farm on property adjacent to Mt. Grant Preserve.

View of Amaro Farm from Mt Grant Preserve

Both large properties are great examples of preservation of scenic island landscapes. The farm with the hills behind is a bucolic scene with original buildings restored beautifully, fences repaired and pasture tended. The biggest hill in the background, Mt. Grant, was saved from becoming a subdivision of highly visible homes through multi-faceted negotiations, a grueling fund-raising campaign and adaptive (and highly transparent) management planning by the Land Bank and Preservation Trust. One heckava lot of paper work and due diligence. For all of us, today and long into the future.

It is hard to understand why an editor would forgo journalistic balance by making accusatory statements and oversimplifying a complex tale of changing property boundaries, easement language, water rights and real estate transactions. In a small community, with wide differences of opinion about nearly everything, it is highly irresponsible to make broad-brush accusations, then refuse to publish factual corrections submitted in response by the Land Bank.

I am not an apologist for the Land Bank. But I am a staunch supporter of this unique and highly successful voter-approved program that has preserved a spectrum of significant parcels of land and shoreline for public use and enjoyment. Today our county still has one of the lowest percentages of public land in western Washington. And what are the main reasons, given in survey after survey, that visitors clog our summer ferries to be here? So my basic beef with Ms. Kivisto’s free-wheeling tales of jack-booted tactics and dark ops is as follows.

The Land Bank staff and Board of Commissioners are regular folks following established law and policies to the best of their abilities, in our excitable fishbowl of island gossip, litigious inclinations and public scrutiny. And occasional editorial slams. They work hard to fulfill their mission to purchase appropriate properties and conservation easements for long-term management in the public interest. They must operate in a highly competitive real estate environment where deep pockets often trump the best interests of the public. To charge bullying, dishonest intentions and collusion between County departments in an imaginary concerted effort to thwart the “dreams” of the Amaros, or anyone else, is untethered to easily observed reality. These editorials are an abuse of logical construction and fair journalism in the public interest. The phrase “tabloid journalism” comes to mind. I am unaware of any public decision process that gives weight or priority to individual “dreams”.

Private property rights and real estate law are darned complicated. Overlying easements and encumbrances additionally so. Water rights are famously said to be “for fightin’ and whiskey for drinkin’” in the West. It is misleading to pen a sloppy “expose” without acknowledging these nuanced legal realities. For example, just what are we to understand from the photo of a single unreadable page purportedly substantiating the Amoro’s claim to water rights from Lawson’s private lake? If they have the proper recorded documents and share them, then they have explicit water rights and an easement to their fields.

We know that Richard Lawson and family had multiple interests in large parcels of old island property that upon his death necessitated dividing and fair settlement. Years and untold sums had been spent on developing the infrastructure for the subdivision, but the real estate market had declined and family interests evolved. The Land Bank did a superb job and doggedly negotiated for us, leading to to an agreement to purchase the contiguous 141 acre hill that would become Mt. Grant. At about that time, the Amaros entered into a purchase and sale agreement on the adjacent Lawson Farm. Prior to that the Amaros et al met with the Land Bank and Preservation Trust to discuss the future management vision for Mt. Grant. Mr. Amaro was repeatedly heard to say that they would not have purchased the farm if the adjacent uplands were not to be protected as public land. Eyes wide open, both entities understood the key importance of the north-eastern “thumb” of a Lawson LLC parcel that connected West Valley Road to the paved road to the summit of Mt. Grant. But the real crux was an acre or two that is now part of the Amaro Farm with a Lawson-created easement for road access and service for the hilltop subdivision that was never completed.

That “thumb” parcel had been in forest tax deferment for over a decade. Tom Lawson and the Amaros wrangled for nearly 2 years trying to come to an agreement on that parcel, but could not do so without completing a forest management plan and /or paying substantial deferred taxes in order to make the sale. Only then, in 2017, did the Land Bank enter the picture as an interested buyer. There was no deal on the table. Not only was the parcel of critical import for preserve access, but the Land Bank would not have to pay deferred taxes, or draw up an approved forest plan, which was an obvious plus for Tom Lawson. Of what benefit to the “farm dream” was this attempted purchase by the Amaros? To potentially undercut Preserve access?

In the ensuing months Land Bank staff and volunteers were working diligently to remake and improve the summit area with accessible trails, parking barriers, gates, interpretive signage, a privy, split rail fences and safety features while attempting to stop illegal dirt bike incursions. The public was involved in all planned actions except those of an emergency nature. I have hiked or driven to the top 25-30 times. At all times of the year. I have seen little in the way of trash anywhere, including in the disputed parking area at the entry. Very unusual for any public land next to a highway and a testament to Land Bank stewardship. Geraldine Lane (created by the Lawsons) runs along the eastern lowland boundary of the Preserve. The Amaros requested removal of a gate installed to keep out public vehicles (not the Amaros) by the Land Bank. The Land Bank complied. The Amaros insisted that a fence be built all along that lane and stated that they would do so if the Land Bank did not. The Land Bank said go for it. Hasn’t happened. But a cursory examination begs the question as to why Geraldine Lane is necessary? Then there are the ongoing rumors of plans to build house sites along there on the farm side. Farm dreams or real estate development dreams? Or both?

Due to the impasse and growing conflict about the easement for service and road access across the small parcel at the entrance area that is now owned by the Amaros, the Land Bank proposed purchase or trade. The Amaros have so far declined this good faith solution. In fairness, perhaps because they believe that they have clear water rights through there despite the fact that concrete now obstructs those pipes at Lawson Pond. If they have an iron-clad water right (a legal easement) then they didn’t even need to go to the trouble to try to purchase that parcel.

Then there are the breathless claims that the County refused to spend more time and more money on mediation to hash out four points of contention identified by the Amaros. First, the privy was already moved as requested. Secondly, installing and maintaining garbage cans at a small preserve with very light visitation is nothing but an open invite for greater problems with garbage dumping. Third, the fence; the Amaros offered to go ahead and build that on their side of Geraldine Lane. Lastly, no property owner in their right mind would grant general indemnity for trespass to the entire acreage of adjacent properties. Done. No need for mediation.

On this issue, Ms. Kivisto in her more recent diatribe, falsely conflates as similar indemnifying property owners who have donated or sold a public trail easement across their private property with the Amaro’s insistence on indemnification over their whole adjacent farm property. The first is standard procedure and the second an unprecedented and silly expectation.

So the Amaros lawyered-up and decided to stop talking and sue the County. They assert that the Land Bank’s “service area and road easement” (which is said to be simple and unambiguous) is limited to subdivision access/management and not public recreational access. Common sense would indicate that families in a dozen houses on the hill and their guests (not to mention years of continual construction traffic) and a similar type of traffic onto Geraldine Lane (if the Amaros continue with stated interests in homesite development) would far exceed controlled public recreational access.

Oddly, perhaps predictably, the Amaro Farm today is pretty enough but lacks the familiar earthy smells and sounds of a real farm operation. Ms. Kivisto’s biased pieces have confused, rather than illuminated these issues. The Amaros are not simply innocent bystanders. If her intention was to rejuvenate community cohesion and neighborly civility, I think that she has failed. A little like spraying gas on a smoldering house fire while giving lip service to saving the place. The court will quickly sort this one out with the first hearing in Superior Court scheduled for August 29.

Steve Ulvi

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