Greenbank couple, land trust protect a little piece of paradise

Kelly Sweeney

When Frances Sweeney was a young girl, one of her childhood sanctuaries was her grandparents’ home in Los Alamitos, Calif.

She remembers the chili peppers in their garden, the eucalyptus trees and the orange groves nearby.

After her grandfather died in 1969, her grandmother finally relented to the demands of a developer and sold the land.

The next time Sweeney visited the property, her heart sank.

The tropical neighborhood of former one acre-lots was replaced by condominiums, apartments and a strip mall.

“It broke my heart,” she said.

The mental scar from that memory still resonates with Frances Sweeney, creating an awareness, appreciation and wisdom that has followed her in life.

Over the past 26 years, she and her husband Kelly built their own dream on 10 woodsy acres on Whidbey Island and they’re determined to let that dream live on long after they’re no longer around to enjoy it themselves.

The Sweeneys recently worked with the Whidbey Camano Land Trust to place a conservation easement on their Greenbank property, essentially giving up development rights to them or anyone who owns the land in the future.

The Sweeneys still own the property. The legal agreement just means that the land must remain in the state that they’ve cherished ever since they bought the property, cleared a portion of the interior to build a modest home and planted a vast orchard of nut trees that has turned the place into somewhat of a wildlife wonderland.

“This is a place of beauty,” Kelly Sweeney said. “We’re living in harmony with nature.”

That sort of harmony is the reason the Sweeneys fell in love with the property the moment they saw a “for sale” sign while they were on a camping trip to nearby South Whidbey State Park in 1989.

They put in an offer that day, then Frances and her “Uncle Roy” built a house while Kelly, a merchant mariner, was out to sea.

The home is surrounded by six forested acres of mature trees that were left untouched.

The property features a seasonal stream on the east end of the land that is dry this time of year.

The Sweeneys’ pride and joy is a vast nut orchard on both sides of the home that includes about 150 hazelnut trees, 100 walnut trees and another 50 trees of various nut species. They planted them all themselves decades ago and took cuttings to start new ones.

With no children of their own, the Sweeneys jokingly refer to the trees as their “kids” and “grandkids.”

“They were born and raised here,” Kelly said with a smile. “Needless to say, we’re attached to our trees.”

The bounty of nuts that are produced make the Sweeneys popular with local wildlife. They also serve well Frances’ love for baking and Kelly’s sweet tooth.

Many baking ingredients are supplied on the property through the Sweeneys’ wide variety of berries they grow in their spacious organic garden — surrounded by a tall fence to keep out deer — and nearly two dozen egg-laying hens that roam the land.

“We’ve never used pesticides once,” Kelly said.

“We both grew up in the city,” Frances said. “This place has taught us to work with nature and in nature.”

Located off Bakken Road, the Sweeneys are a short drive away from the Highway 525 yet are in their own world on their secluded, peaceful property.

Kelly is a licensed ship captain on commercial vessels, magazine contributor and author of the book, “From the Bridge,” capturing his experiences at sea. For the past eight years, the couple has run a business out of their home called Maritime Headhunters, which helps other sea captains from around the world find crew on short notice.

The business keeps Kelly home rather than away at sea. And home is where he wants to be.

Out of their love for their property and the island, and knowledge of past lessons, the Sweeneys approached the Whidbey Camano Land Trust in an effort to keep their land the way it is, even after they’re gone.

“For them, it’s really about leaving a legacy,” said Janelle Castro, communications and outreach manager with the land trust. “They truly love their land. For them to know that it’s going to stay the way it is after they’re gone is very important and comforting to them.”

The Sweeneys also hoped they might serve as an example to encourage other small landowners to do the same to keep Whidbey wild and beautiful.

“We’re just two average people wanting to do this,” Kelly said.

In the time they’ve lived on Whidbey, they point to the development along Mukilteo Speedway across the water from Clinton as a place they’ve seen transformed in a major way in a relatively short period of time.

“It’s not like this could never happen here,” Frances said. “It can happen.”

“We know what can happen to beautiful places.”

Under the legal agreement, customized with restrictions by the Sweeneys, the land must remain in its single-family residence state on 10 acres with no further development in perpetuity regardless who owns the property in the future.

“In perpetuity,” Frances said, breaking into a laugh.

“I love that word.”