Sagariballa: The Truth of The Matter Featured

I am compelled to respond to Steve Ulvi’s recent inflammatory opinion presented in the form of a letter to the editor in one of our local media outlets. The gist of Mr. Ulti’s letter is that a local family, the Amaro family, has engaged in frivolous litigation and harassment of their neighbors. The letter also implies that the Amaro family is either making up or imagining the circumstances that resulted in that litigation.

View of Amaro Farm from Mt Grant Preserve

Mr. Ulvi accuses Ms. Kivisto of engaging in a journalistic “mission to smear” rather than furthering important public discourse. Mr. Ulvi in making such allegations, himself engages in an effort to smear Ms. Kivisto and the Amaro family. Mr. Ulvi fails to recognize that Ms. Kivisto engaged in extensive research before writing and publishing each of her articles, including innumerable and repeat interviews, research online and at the courthouse; review of a significant number of documents; and contact with many witnesses. In the end, Ms. Kivisto was the first and only journalist to actually get to the truth of the matter at hand. That truth may not fit Mr. Ulvi’s agenda, but it remains the truth, nevertheless.

Mr. Ulvi proceeds to laud the Land Bank, and ignores the fact that neither Ms. Kivisto, the Amaro family, or those that support them, have ever complained about the premise behind the Land Bank. Rather, they have questioned whether the Land Bank is abiding by the code that created it and by which it is regulated.

First and foremost, they wonder, as do I, why the Land Bank would not agree to what were absolutely reasonable requests by the Amaro family. The Land Bank’s use of the Amaro family property for the entire globe to access Mt. Grant resulted in very real repercussions to the Amaro family. Garbage, noise, excessive traffic, excessive wear and tear, unsanitary conditions including human defecation, loose dogs, fire risk, dangerous persons, verbal assaults on the Amaro family, threats against the Amaro family, repeated trespassing, damage, theft, liability risk and more.

The Amaro family asked the Land Bank to help minimize those repercussions via: 1) a garbage can; 2) a fence between the properties; 3) a restroom where the Amaro family could not see or smell it; and 4) an indemnity agreement so that in the event the Amaro family was sued by a person the Land Bank had encouraged and allowed to use the Amaro family property, the Amaro family would be protected.

The Amaro family was not asking for money or to block public access. The Land Bank said no to every single request, while at the same time offering Thomas Lawson a fence, and many other property owners’ indemnity. Thus the question remains why? Was it because the Amaro family rejected the Land Bank’s conservation easement on their property? Was it to make a showing to the rest of the community that adjacent property owners dare not ask the Land Bank for anything?

Only in the confines of these borders did additional questions begin to arise regarding the Land Bank. Why was the Land Bank repeatedly asking the public for (often millions of) dollars to “save” properties that were already under conservation easements (and thus already “saved”)? Why was the Land Bank buying large acreages at $15,000 an acre, often with no appraisal, and often out from under other buyers who wanted to privately conserve the property? Why was the Land Bank not following its charter, which requires it to support private conservation before outright purchase? Why was the Land Bank’s publicized budget so confusing that it was hard to determine if it was meeting its 10% maximum on administrative costs? Why was the Land Bank shifting from its purpose of conservation of open space to purchasing “in town” homes and creating public parks? Why was the Land Bank proposing uses for and engaging in uses of property that violated county code? Why was the Land Bank rushing purchases through without proper due process based on alleged offers by developers that didn’t appear to actually exist? The list of questions grew and grew – and nobody – not the Land Bank, the County Council or the Prosecutor could answer them.

Mr. Ulvi continued, accusing the Amaro family of telling “free-wheeling tales” of bullying and “nefarious doings”. He once again insinuated that the Amaro family was either making these stories up or imagining them. While Mr. Ulvi was imagining the Amaro family’s imagination, they were suffering at the hands of very real bullies and haters. They had their signs stolen and defaced. They had their fences driven into. Someone defecated in their driveway. They had nasty notes left on their fences and trees. They received hate mail. They had their name written on the rock under what looked like a crosshair. They had horrible things written about them online. They had people across the community speaking about them in the most horrific of ways. Someone threw a brick at their sheep and a (presumably poisoned) steak at their dog. They had people screaming profanities at them when driving by, as well as filming them. Mrs. Amaro had a vehicle follow her a few feet behind her bumper up to ninety miles an hour.

The Amaro family has pictures of the defaced signs, the broken fences, the hate mail, the pile of human shit, the nasty notes, the rock painting, the online commentary, the brick and the steak. They have security video of the drive by activity. Thus I can not imagine how Mr. Ulvi could conclude that this was all in the Amaro family’s imagination.

Simultaneously the Land Bank hired an expensive downtown Seattle law firm and refused all attempts at settlement, resolution or mediation. One wonders why the Land Bank could not locate a competent and less expensive attorney closer.

The Prosecutor refused to prosecute the man who threatened to burn the Amaro family’s house down – despite six people witnessing it – only one of whom was a member of the family. The Amaro family had to go instead and get their own protection order from an off-island judge. Arkansas, on the other hand, had no issue prosecuting the same man for threats in that state.

The San Juan County code enforcement division has refused to even process the Amaro family’s requests for enforcement. The mayor personally attacked the Amaro family for reasons directly related to the Land Bank. The Land Bank purchased a property out from under the Amaro family, which they already had the quit claim deed for. The list goes on and on.

Even worse, throughout all of this, not a single representative of our local government has stood up and condemned the harassment of the Amaro family. Not one has stood up and asked that the community cease the harassment. Instead they just watch it happen – over and over and over again. Certainly that gives way to valid concerns about bullying, collusion and illegal retaliation in violation of Section 1983.

Mr. Ulvi continues, arguing that the Amaro family’s only claim to the water right that Thomas Lawson interfered with was based upon a single unreadable page. Water rights are public record, and anyone can look them up. Water rights run with the land, meaning even when a property is sold the water right stays with the property. The water right at issue, put in place by Gilbert Lawson in the early 1950’s, had benefited the farm for over fifty years – until blocked by Thomas Lawson shortly after the Amaro family informed him that they did not want to allow him to leave his cattle on the farm they purchased. The Amaro family was concerned about the condition of the cattle and could not bear to watch the cattle fade away before their very eyes. Stating the true facts about that situation does not constitute an “expose”. Again, the true facts may not match Mr. Ulvi’s agenda, but the truth remains the truth whether one likes it or not.

Mr. Ulvi then accuses the Amaro family of having some ulterior motive for trading a piece of property with Thomas Lawson, which property the Land Bank purchased out from under the Amaro family despite knowing the trade was taking place. If Mr. Ulvi would examine the true facts, versus the Land Bank’s innuendo, he would find that the reason for the trade was to place all of Thomas Lawson’s property on one side of the road and all of the Amaro family’s property on the other side of the road – making boundary delineation easier and less expensive. Doesn’t sound very suspect to me.

The fact remains that the Amaro family asked the Land Bank if it wanted the property before they entered into the trade agreement and the Land Bank said no. Then in the middle of the trade, the Land Bank secretly bought it out from under the Amaro family without even notifying them. When Mrs. Amaro asked Mr. Lincoln Bormann why the property showed as that of the Land Bank when she was still trading for it, he simply ignored her question. If the purchase had truly been innocent would not the appropriate response have been something to the effect of “oh my, I thought your trade was off”? The Land Bank paid $15,000 an acre for the property, which was then assessed at $7,000 an acre. Smells a bit fishy to me.

Mr. Ulvi then repeats the Land Bank and Trust’s motto of there is “no trash” The Land Bank and the Trust have repeatedly insinuated that the Amaro family has either made up the trash or imagined it. The Land Bank and the Trust have done so despite having been privy to photograph after photograph of the trash. Has the question ever arisen in Mr. Ulvi’s mind that perhaps there is no trash when he is on-site because the Amaro family cleans it up? If one drives by the Amaro farm one can see that they maintain their property exceedingly well, including removing all trash along the roadway. I assume that they would do the same on their private property at Mt. Grant.

Mr. Ulvi then proffers his version of the events leading up to the litigation. He clearly has not examined the extensive court file, or he has interpreted the facts to fit his own agenda. He states, for instance, that the Land Bank offered to allow the Amaro family to build a fence to prevent the trespassing. First, why should the Amaro family have to spend funds to stop trespassing created by the Land Bank? Next, the Amaro family certainly didn’t need the Land Bank’s permission to build a fence on their own property and at their own expense, so why would that be viewed as a concession by the Land Bank or by Mr. Ulvi?

He then indicates that the Land Bank generously removed a gate at the Amaro family’s request. He ignores the fact that the gate was removed as it was prohibited by the easement language – and ignores the fact that the Amaro family offered to let the Land Bank keep it there as long as it was left open except when the main gate was open. The Land Bank refused that simple request, and the Amaro family appropriately asked for the removal of the illegal gate. Again, it was not a concession by the Land Bank.

He then claims that the Land Bank offered a property trade, implying that said offer was a generous and fair concession by the Land Bank. He conveniently omits the fact that the Land Bank wanted over three acres for every one of the Amaro family’s single acres – so the Amaro family smartly responded, “no thank you”. Once again, there was no good faith by the Land Bank, as Mr. Ulvi implies.

Mr. Ulvi goes on to claim that an “expensive, permanent pit toilet” and “installing and maintaining garbage cans at a small preserve” is somehow a ludicrous request. Has Mr. Ulvi even read the Land Bank’s draft management plan for Mt. Grant? If he had he would find that the Land Bank itself had plans for these even before the Amaro family suggested them. This is not, after all, a small preserve, but it is, as Mr. Ulvi calls it, the “crown jewel” of the Land Bank, and as Land Bank administrators have stated in innumerable documents presented to the court, it is a preserve that has much more traffic than the rest, so much so that the Land Bank has expressed worry about the cost of road maintenance, which maintenance cost the Amaro family must share in.

Finally, Mr. Ulvi alleges that the Amaro family sought indemnity for every possible claim from the Land Bank. To the contrary, they sought indemnity only for claims made by persons who were injured on the Amaro family’s property after being allowed by and encouraged to be there by, the Land Bank. The Amaro family sought an indemnity provision no different that that given by the Land Bank to other property owners as recently as this year.

Mr. Ulvi alleges that the Amaro family walked “out of some meetings” and “lawyered-up” and “decided to stop talking and sue the County”. Once again, Mr. Ulvi’s facts are far off base. The Amaro family made dozens of phone calls, sent many emails, sent six detailed letters, and attended at least a dozen meetings, including three at which a dozen or more people were in attendance. At every single turn they received absolute and complete rejection of every single request. At the last meeting the Land Bank and Trust not only once again rejected every one of their requests, but they told the Amaro family to “go get some leverage”. Thus, with some of the statutes of limitations approaching, the Amaro family was left with no choice but to file suit. Both before and after filing suit the Amaro family offered to attend mediation. The Land Bank refused. The Amaro family never wanted to sue. But where does one go when the other side pulls the vault door down and says, come back when you have some leverage?

Finally, Mr. Ulvi alleges that the Amaro family’s farm “lacks the familiar earthy smells and sounds of a real farm operation”. Strange, when I visited, I saw sheep grazing, smelled their excrement and heard plenty of sheep sounds. Strange, when I visited, I saw hay and grain growing, as well as fences being repaired, and fields being prepared for the planting of orchards. Strange, I have read that the Amaro family needs the water to the farm back before they can grow many of their planned crops. I am not sure why Mr. Ulvi feels the need to misrepresent something that is so viscerally proven. I am not sure why he feels the need to call Ms. Kivisto’s editorials “biased”. I am not sure why he has the need to claim that the Amaro family is anything but innocent. Have we reached a point on this island that one cannot defend their private property rights in a court of law without being accused, harassed, bullied and portrayed as mentally ill?

Mr. Ulvi is right about one thing in his letter. In court he will find out the truth – but that truth will not be to his liking. Instead he will learn that this is not, and has never been, an “over- heated and largely fictional public tale”.

Shame on you Mr. Ulvi for continuing the deplorable attacks on the Amaro family, and for supporting your attack with half-truths and bold-faced lies. Shame on you for harming the Amaro family and their children. I sincerely hope, Mr. Ulvi, that you never have to experience being on the receiving end of such hate. I urge each and every member of this community to stand up for the Amaro family – as they have truly been the victims of a modern- day witch hunt – which so many have joined in without even knowing the truth and without even knowing the Amaro family. This community has thrown them in the water with their hands tied behind their backs – and sink or swim they have already been condemned.

Leslie Sagariballa

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