Greenbank beach dispute results in (some) back taxes for property owner

A dispute is growing over access to the beach off Wonn Road at Greenbank. - Brian Kelly / The Record
A dispute is growing over access to the beach off Wonn Road at Greenbank.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

Amid the controversy about beach access at the end of Wonn Road in Greenbank, the Island County Assessor has found that the current property owner owes three years of back taxes for the tidelands Bruce Montgomery says he owns.

It’s not much — $3.63 to be exact — but tax slips have been prepared and Island County Assessor Dave Mattens said the Montgomerys can expect to find a tax bill in their mailbox soon.

Bruce Montgomery bought property at the end of the county road in 2006. When he began to build his new home this year, he also built a brick-and-concrete wall across the access route the public has used to get to the Greenbank shoreline for generations.

The barrier blocking the historic county road to the beach didn’t sit well with some residents, including Glen Russell.

Russell did extensive research and questioned the legality of the wall with county officials, and said he found evidence that the beach access should be open to the public and that the tidelands belong to Island County.

He filed two complaints with the county and requested stop work orders to prevent construction of the wall.

But the county allowed the Montgomerys to go ahead with their plans, warning them only that the wall may have to be removed if research shows the wall is on public property blocks access that was granted to the public.

Island County’s Assessor Dave Mattens said the good news for Montgomery is that — based on all material Mattens reviewed, including a statutory warrant deed — the tidelands belong to the Montgomerys. The county, however, also discovered it had not assessed taxes on the 50-foot-sliver of tidelands.

“If we detect an error, we correct it,” Mattens said.

However, because tidelands are taxed at a different rate than other property, the amount is nominal.

While the parcel on which the Montgomery home is built is assessed at a much higher value, the tidelands go at a meager $3 per square foot, adding up to $150 for the sliver of property.

Based on a slightly varying tax rate in the tax district, the Montgomerys have to pay a total of $3.68 in taxes for the last three years.

Mattens said the situation was unusual.

“This is atypical,” he said. “Usually the county owns the tidelands at the end of a public road.”

Montgomery didn’t say if he plans to dispute the matter, but he disagreed with the assessor.

“I’ve been paying taxes on it,” he said. “It’s in my tax parcel. It’s been taxed since 1911.”

The Montgomerys also have continued to build the wall that started the latest round of controversy about beach access at the site, the former location of the historic Greenbank Store and the place where Puget Sound’s “mosquito fleet” brought supplies and visitors.

Montgomery said the county did not tell him to stop building the wall and he said the wall is there to protect his drainfield and his property from damage that could be done by cars driving on the tidelands.

“It’s not to keep people out. It’s to keep cars out,” he said.

A map created by the Washington State University Extension identifies his property as a public park. Montgomery said that’s a mistake.

“I have people camping in my front yard,” he said.

Montgomery added he has no problem with people going to the beach at the end of Wonn Road, but that he wants people to respect his property rights.

“I’ve never come out with a pitchfork,” Montgomery said. “I put the wall up to keep people from camping. But I may change my attitude if there is massive protest.”

He said it’s up to the county to sort the issue out, but it appears the county is foot-dragging.

And that’s for a good reason, he added.

“The county is very happy to charge me property tax,” Montgomery said.

And if the county wants to challenge ownership of the tidelands, Montgomery said, it wouldn’t be worth the effort for the county.

“The cost of a lawsuit would outweigh the value of the property. The county doesn’t want to deal with it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Russell is continuing his quest to protect the access route.

Besides taking issue with the wall, he also alleges that the legal description of the land where the home is built has been wrong since the 1970s.

He said a motorhome from the 1970s and a portion of the new home is actually sitting on tidelands.

He is urging county residents to write to their commissioners and press for keeping the beach access open to the public.

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