Assessments for controversial Useless Bay pump not illegal, judge rules

COUPEVILLE — Costly assessments on property owners near Useless Bay that are being used to pay for a controversial pump project are not illegal, an Island County Superior Court judge has ruled.

In a decision tendered July 29, Judge Vickie Churchill also said officials with Diking District 1 were well within their authority to approve the $430,000 pump project that critics say is damaging sensitive wetlands and prime wildlife habitat next to Useless Bay. Churchill refused to void a 2004 contract on the pump project between Diking District 1 and Island County and the Useless Bay Golf & Country.

The decision was not a complete victory for diking district officials, who have been dogged by lawsuits for years from angry waterfront property owners who have said they are being unfairly asked to pay more for the pump project than others in the district.

Churchill said diking district commissioners did not properly follow procedures when they creating the property roll and assessments that eventually paid for the pump project.

Diking commissioners should have prepared a property roll and provided notice to property owners in the district, followed by a public hearing and a chance for landowners to appeal. Instead, diking officials had hoped that the assessment method they adopted 25 years ago, but abandoned in 1995, was sufficient and could be used as they tried to finance the pump improvement project.

Churchill said district officials would have to try again.

"The diking district must prepare and file a property roll and provide notice, a public hearing, and an appeal process to the benefited property owners," Churchill wrote in her decision.

Assessments on property owners to pay for the pump project began in 2009, and a group of district residents — banded together as Citizens in Support of Useless Bay Community — have been trying to get their costly assessments refunded.

Members of the group have said their assessments, which are based on Island County's assessed value of their properties, are much higher than those paid by other property owners in the district, which spans 743 acres and includes the neighborhoods of Sunlight Beach, Olympic View and Sun Vista and the Useless Bay Golf & Country Club. Because properties in the diking district include prime beachfront homes, undeveloped farmland and modest homes away from the coast, assessments have varied widely.

But in a major blow to disgruntled property owners, Churchill said the method of assessment, which used 100 percent of the county's current assessed value, was not illegal.

That's in large part because diking district officials have maintained that the pump project is protecting properties near Useless Bay from flooding.

Without the project, flooded properties might well be worthless, Churchill said.

"Assuming ... that water floods the benefited properties within the diking district and stays flooded, the properties could have no fair market value," Churchill wrote. "Flooded land could not be farmed, and cattle could not graze in a bog or marsh. Foundations on existing buildings could be undermined, impacting the stability of buildings.

"In such a circumstance, it is unlikely that anyone would want to buy property that was underwater or even build or farm or graze animals on vacant property that was underwater. Under such a scenario, the affected property might have no fair market value, but with the water controlled, the same property could have a fair market value comparable to the current assessed value.

"Obviously, the diking district provides a substantial benefit to the properties that would otherwise be affected by the water that would exist on the property without the diking district," she concluded.

Even so, Churchill said the diking district couldn't automatically increase its assessments on property owners when the county increases its assessed values for private properties.

The diking district, the judge said, was still required to give notice, hold a hearing and give property owners the opportunity to appeal the assessments.


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