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Diking district hit with lawsuit

A lawsuit has been filed to stop Island County Diking District 1 from collecting money for its new pump project from property owners in the district.

The suit also addresses long-simmering complaints that diking district officials did not properly notify residents of district hearings and commissioner elections. It says management of the district’s business “has been chaotic at best.”

The lawsuit, filed on Friday, Oct. 9, in Island County Superior Court, was brought by Citizens In Support of Useless Bay Community (CISUBC), a group of property owners within the diking district who are upset with the pump assessment and past actions of the diking commissioners.

Named in the suit along with the three diking commissioners were Island County, County Assessor David Mattens, Treasurer Linda Riffe and Assessor Sheila Crider. The officials were listed to prohibit them from collecting assessments for the pump pending outcome of the litigation.

Also named in the lawsuit, brought by the Seattle law firm Rowley & Klauser, is the Useless Bay Golf & Country Club. The club participated in the development of the pump project.

The lawsuit was not unexpected. Disgruntled residents of the diking district have been threatening legal action since last summer, and have been conducting fundraisers to compile attorney fees. The issues raised in the lawsuit were foreshadowed by a letter dated Sept. 21 from the law firm to all the parties later listed in the suit, with the request that the assessments be rescinded and money collected returned.

Among those who signed the legal documents filed Oct. 9 were district residents and CISUBC directors Leo Cruise, Judith Winquist and Coyla Shepard. Shepard is the wife of the newest diking district commissioner and CISUBC supporter John Shepard.

Shepard and the other two diking commissioners, Steve Arnold and Ray Gabelein, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“It would take more time than you’ve got,” Arnold, chairman of the commission, said Friday morning.

Arnold said that a number of other property owners in the district have voiced support for the pump and for the board’s handling of the affairs of the district.

The lawsuit says some property owners within the district who benefit most from the drainage system aren’t getting assessed at all.

The size of the assessments on property owners in the district for the pump project were determined, in part, by the value of their properties.

The Winquists, the Shepards and Cruise are among the property owners who are paying the most in assessments. The Winquists own property worth more than $6 million; the Shepards own property worth $1.6 million, and Cruise owns property worth $1.5 million, according to Island County records.

The suit also maintains that stormwater management in the district benefits a much wider area than the district itself, and points out that property owners outside the district are not being assessed. It says the efforts of the diking district actually benefit four separate drainage basins that span 5,000 acres. The diking district itself contains 743 acres.

The lawsuit also maintains that the county should have devised a much wider area for dealing with stormwater than the boundaries of the diking district before it approved development in surrounding areas that has contributed to the increase in runoff.

The suit also contends the 2004 contract authorizing the new pump project was devised by the diking commissioners, the county and the country club “ignoring all statutory notification, hearing and appeal rights of property owners.”

The lawsuit demands the contract be declared void.

The lawsuit is the latest wrinkle in continuing disagreements between Gabelein and Arnold on one side, and Shepard and CISUBC on the other, about how to manage the district.

Established in the early 1900s to manage tidal and stormwater runoff, the district, which spans the area surrounding Deer Lagoon on Useless Bay, includes the neighborhoods of Sunlight Beach, Olympic View and Sun Vista and the Useless Bay Golf & Country Club.

The diking district bubbled along through the years, with the original dike and outflow system for the most part managing the drainage. Commissioners and their family members, most longtime residents of the area, kept the outflow pipes clear of sand and the stormwater flowing.

But as the surrounding area became more and more developed, diking commissioners determined that the original outflow system wouldn’t keep up with the water, especially in the event of a big storm. So last year they ordered the new pump, which can drain 6,000 gallons of water per minute. It was installed last Christmas Eve.

CISUBC continues to maintain that the assessments for the project are inequitable, that the $430,000 project wasn’t properly advertised and may not be needed, and that the diking commissioners themselves were not properly seated.

Shepard himself said he has been assessed an additional $1,300 a year for the pump on his new home at Sunlight Beach and his other property in Olympic View, an assessment he will be paying for five years.

Shepard and CISUBC members have been so persistent on the subject of the pump, that last week Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson fired off a letter to all three diking commissioners.

In the letter, she sided with claims made by CISUBC.

“The actions of your commission have promoted unnecessary removal of surface water,” Price Johnson wrote. “It is in the public interest that better protection be afforded this precious resource.”

Gabelein, who insists that the pump is calibrated correctly, attended Monday’s county commissioners’ meeting in Coupeville and responded to Price Johnson’s letter as a private landowner in the district.

Gabelein said the county itself approved the pump project along with the diking district and officials of the country club in 2004, and that the county selected and paid for the engineer who designed it.

He said the county also has approved development projects within the district that have resulted in increased stormwater runoff, and that maintaining a too-high water level will jeopardize septic systems.

He also questioned the county’s authority to have a say in the internal business of the diking district.

“There is an opportunity for farmland preservation, protection of the existing residential development, as well as wetland enhancement projects if you get the cooperation of the land owners versus some type of feud based on mostly small-town politics,” Gabelein told the commissioners, reading from a prepared statement.

“We can do better,” he added.

Record writer Brian Kelly contributed to this report.

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