Battle for Wonn Road may end with settlement

Mike McVay poses for a picture in front of a wall accross the end of Wonn Road in Greenbank

A settlement offer may end an eight-year-old squabble over a wall built to block a popular beach access in Greenbank.

The Island County Commissioners are poised to discuss a controversial settlement offer from the Montgomerys at their regular work session. The meeting begins at 9 a.m., and the settlement will be discussed around 10:45 in the Commissioners Hearing Room in Coupeville.

While some are praising the offer, including Commissioner Jill Johnson, beach access advocates who’ve been involved in the litigation are in an uproar and pledging to fight the deal if it’s accepted.

“What they are proposing is ridiculous in view of what the public would give up, and it’s against the law,” said Jane Seymour, an attorney for Island Beach Access.

She called the settlement offer inadequate and said the group will contest it if necessary.

The 66-page offer, from property owners Joanne S. and Alan B. Montgomery, would agree that the county owns the property on which the wall is built and so is free to remove it, but only subject to several restrictions.

The county will get the property only when both Montgomerys have died, or 10 years after the county files the deed to it, whichever comes later.

The county still won’t get the property, however, if, within 10 years after filing the deed, either the couple buys and then gives to the county any of four other Greenbank waterfront properties instead, or if the county agrees to accept a comparable public beach access in exchange.

In addition to these provisions, the offer would give the county a piece of land on Driftwood Way, on Whidbey’s West Side Ledgewood neighborhood, and $50,000 to be used for buying or improving public beach access.

The piece of land on Driftwood Way is located north of the intersection with Seaward Way, toward the northern end of the street.

County Assessor’s Office records show the Montgomerys, of Medina, bought the unbuilt property on Sept. 29 for $80,000. It has an appraised value of $10.

The parcel is adjacent to an existing park, Commissioner Jill Johnson said.

A 35-foot section of the road located near that parcel dropped eight feet last month in a landslide but has since been rebuilt.

The four contiguous pieces of Greenbank beachfront land, all to the north of Wonn Road, are as follows:

• 2821 North Bluff Road, appraised at $651,047, owned by Judith Ann Boyden, of Snohomish;

• 2825 North Bluff Road, appraised at $753,022, owned by Philip J. Anderson, of that address;

• 2829 North Bluff Road, appraised at $868,088, owned by Jane A. Johnson, of Seattle;

• 2833 North Bluff Road, appraised at $554,899, owned by Christoper Dean DeForest, of Mukilteo.

The deed that includes the wall also includes tidelands that weren’t part of the original lawsuit, Commissioner Johnson said.

The settlement offer was drawing both praise and denunciation as early as last week.

Johnson called it “fair and in the best interest of the citizens.” She said there is no guarantee the county would prevail in the lawsuit.

“Now we have certainty and ultimately two access points versus one. I view that as positive.”

Aaron Laing, a Seattle-based attorney for the Montgomerys, said the offer is “a tremendous win for the county and the public. They get a significant amount of beach access they never could have achieved through litigation, and our clients get peace after having their lives and their home disrupted for eight years.”

He said that’s how long the issue has simmered.

However, Mike McVay, president and founder of Island Beach Access, an advocacy group that claims 500-700 supporters and has intervened in the lawsuit, called the offer “BS.”

“If the commissioners sign the agreement, they’ve betrayed the people of Island County,” he said. “The Montgomerys have taken public property for themselves.”

According to Seymour, approving the proposal would violate state law, specifically, RCW 36.87.130, which prohibits counties from vacating any part of a county road that abuts a body of water, with certain narrow exceptions.

“We are a party to the lawsuit, but were not made a party to the settlement offer,” Seymour said. “We  have a right to object to any agreement between the Montgomerys and the county, and we will do so, on factual and legal grounds.”

The agreement must be approved by the Skagit County Superior Court before it can go into effect.

The Montgomerys transferred the case from Island to Skagit County court near the start of the litigation, arguing they could not get a fair hearing on Whidbey.

Dan Mitchell, a member of the county’s legal staff who helped negotiate the settlement, declined to comment.

The squabble began in 2008 when the Montgomerys built the wall at the eastern end of Wonn Road, near Greenbank Farm. The road end is adjacent to their home and forms the beginning of their driveway.

The Montgomerys claim they built the wall to keep people from driving over their drain field, which is located in the grassy area between the eastern end of Wonn Road and the beach and shoreline.

Greenbank residents and beach-access proponents raised the alarm, claiming the beach and tidelands are public property.

In 2009, the Island County Commissioners agreed to challenge the Montgomerys’ claim. That promise languished until March 6, 2013, when county officials filed suit.

The lawsuit argues “the intent of the plat of Greenbank Beach was that the public forever have access from the eastern end of Greenbank Road, now known as Wonn Road, to the water’s edge … Defendants do not have the right to exclude the public from using the road to access the shoreline.”

Rumors of a settlement offer swirled in March 2014, but none was forthcoming.

The eastern end of Wonn Road is unique and has historical significance, said Mike McVay, the Island Beach Access president. The pilings to its east mark the site of a dock that historically served as the only access point to Greenbank.

Ferries and steamers regularly docked there, and children took a boat daily from there to school in Everett, he said.