Sleuth uncovers public beaches — Island County joins the effort by hiring researcher
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
October 26, 2011 · Updated 8:03 AM
Mike McVay begins his investigations by hopping into his little pickup and maneuvering through a maze of rural county roads, finding what he calls the “hidden nooks and crannies” of South and Central Whidbey.
He stops when he gets to the water. McVay, a semi-retired chainsaw artist, has a unusual skill for finding little — and sometimes rather large — pieces of beach, tideland and even bluffs that belong to the public, but whose ownership may have been lost, forgotten or fogged up over the years.
After he finds the suspect property, then the real detective work begins. He pores through plats, zoning maps, tax reports and other dusty documents from at least four county departments, and sometimes state offices, to figure out if a property is publicly owned. It’s a monumental task.
“It’s like a giant ball of sticky tape and I’m trying to straighten it out,” he said.
McVay explained that he started researching public access after trying to find an easily accessible beach where his son, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, could fish; his son ended up being screamed at by a property owner at one beach, spurring McVay to action.
As a beach detective, McVay has been remarkably successful and has even informed state and county officials about public access they didn’t know they had. He cites a dozen or more of his recent discoveries as he spins his pickup around South Whidbey back-roads. He found evidence, for example, that much of Brighton Beach in Clinton is public, though he said not even the residents who live along the scenic strip of sandy beach seem to be aware of it.
To help folks identify forgotten or easily overlooked site, McVay and his cohorts have started a group called Island Citizens for Public Beach Access. They are in the process of setting up a website at http://islandcountypublicbeaches.org.
County officials also catalog beaches
As McVay continues his sleuthing, Island County officials also enlisted their own researcher to look at the same issue. Karen Stewart, a consultant on shoreline planning, was hired by the county planning department to serve as the “shoreline master program coordinator.” The county is mandated by the state to update its shoreline master plan and Stewart has worked with other counties, including Snohomish, to update theirs. A state grant funds her work.
But in addition to updating the plan, Island County officials also decided to enlist Stewart to create a catalog of all the public beach access points on Whidbey and Camano islands.
Stewart said she found 90 public beaches in addition to the 67 identified in the WSU Extension of Island County book, “Getting to the Water’s Edge.” She said a third of the beaches she found are “community beach access,” which means only members of a development are allowed access.
Stewart said the plan is to make the information available to the public.
“Ideally, I would love to have an interactive map on the county website,” she said. “It’s to everyone’s benefit to have the best information we can.”
In addition, Public Works Director Bill Oakes said the best and clearest access points will be promoted with signs at the site.
While it may seem odd that there’s no list of county properties, Stewart said other counties on Puget Sound are in the same boat, but she’s not aware of any other county doing the work to catalogue public beaches.
Oakes also emphasized that county officials have been diligent in protecting public property. They went to court a few years back and successfully defended the county’s ownership of a high-bluff property on Smugglers Cove Road.
In one of the most highly publicized beach ownership disputes, two years ago county commissioners ordered the county prosecutor to take legal action to restore the public Wonn Road access to the beach. Greenbank resident Bruce Montgomery claims he owned the beach and put up a wall to keep the public out.
McVay isn’t happy that it’s taking so long for the county to take action. Staff members in the public works department are still gathering information for the prosecutor’s office.
He’s also skeptical about the county’s plan to catalog and advertise public beaches. He said the attitude from some county officials is that they don’t want to be bothered and that identifying county-owned property will only increase their workload.
Encroachment is epidemic
But what really riles him up is when he finds that adjacent property owners have encroached into public property with gardens, fences, driveways or even walls.
“These people would never go into a store and steal something, but they will steal a county road,” McVay said. “The problem is there is no penalty for encroachment.”
McVay points to Marissa Lane at Sandy Point near Langley as “the most egregious example.” The public road leads to the water, giving the public access to a beautiful, but small piece of sandy beach. He explained that residents of the exclusive neighborhood have built fences and even garages into the right-of-way, narrowing the 20-foot-wide road to just eight feet at one site. As a result, there’s nowhere for people to park.
“If you control parking, you control access,” he said.
McVay said he is frustrated by what he sees as Island County government’s reluctance do anything about such cases of encroachment.
Under state law, roads that end at bodies of water are public property. As McVay explains it, there was a law passed in the 1960s that prevents government entities from selling or otherwise giving away their properties. But before that, officials with the state and county government sometimes sold — or traded for a case of whiskey, as legend has it — beach property, tidelands and upland property.
The result is often-confusing ownership records. There are places where the county owns tidelands, for instance, but they are surrounded by private property, so that there’s no way to get there by land. In some places, public beach ownership is so complex that the county has put up signs with diagrams to show people where they can walk.
The confusing ownership sometimes leads to neighborhood disputes. McVay said he was upset to hear about a group of older ladies who were hassled by a Sandy Point “caretaker” when they walked down to visit the public beach access. He said he’s often been harassed during his investigations by people who live next to public access points and jealously covet the beach.
“They lie in fear of barbarian herds converging on their beaches with drugs and alcohol and orgies and fires,” McVay joked.
Anglers create beach conflict
Yet McVay admits that some members of the public, especially fishermen in the midst of a salmon frenzy, have caused legitimate problems for nearby property owners. He’s heard horror stories about fishermen going to the bathroom on the beach or even using a resident’s barbecue grill to cook fish.
“The fishermen are kind of the boogeyman of all the beach owners,” he said.
It got so bad during this year’s fishing season that some residents of Moran Beach on North Whidbey are looking for ways to close the public beach adjacent to their private beaches.
Resident Marci Buskala said neighbors were constantly catching people going to the bathroom on their beaches or leaving behind dirty diapers, cigarette butts and other trash. One neighbor stepped in a pile of human excrement and toilet paper.
“Our grandkids can’t even play in the sand,” she said. “It’s just like playing in someone’s toilet bowl.”
Buskala said her husband caught a couple having sex in a little playhouse a neighbor built on his beach for children to play in. She’s been cussed out by people when she politely asks them to get off her property. And people using the beach illegally park their vehicles and block the skinny private road.
She hates to call the cops on people, she said, but sometimes the residents have little choice.
Trespassing troubles sheriff
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said dealing with arguments over people trespassing on private beaches is a major headache for his deputies and has even led to violence. He said years ago a property owner “maced” a couple of women during such a dispute.
More recently, a property owner at Lagoon Point, a popular salmon fishing spot, was accused in August of shoving and then shooting a firework at a fisherman who may have been on his private beach property.
Brown said deputies investigated, but witnesses left at the scene said the man didn’t actually point a firework at anyone; the man allegedly lit a bottle rocket and shot it in the air to scare away fish. The man was warned not to shoot any more fireworks, Brown said.
Brown said his deputies are sometimes forced to make on-the-spot decisions about property ownership, sometimes with complicated documents supplied by the presumed owners. He said the deputies do their best, but it’s really a difficult and awkward position to be in.
“I wish it was like Hawaii, where all the beaches are public,” he said.
McVay, however, faults the sheriff for enforcing private property rights when it’s not even clear who owns a property. He claims the sheriff unfairly sides with disgruntled property owners, though Brown denies it.
McVay and his friends believe that clear information about which beaches are public will lessen such conflicts, even though it may increase public use. He said he’s tried to work with fishermen groups to lessen problems. One idea was to collect donations to place more portable toilets at fishing beaches, but he said they were met with nothing but obstruction from the county.
McVay said the folks who will most benefit from a comprehensive listing of public beaches are those who live in the county and just want to be able to walk down to a piece of beach and enjoy the water.
After all, the ability to sit on a lonely beach and contemplate the waves is one of the greatest benefits of living on Whidbey Island, assuming someone doesn’t chase you away.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.