A small group of beachfront property owners with cabins that survived a series of destructive bluff slides in Old Clinton earlier this year are facing a new headache — the potential for a permanent loss of power.
Five cabin owners have been without electricity since the slides occurred, which began in December and continued through March, destroying two cabins, severely damaging another and temporarily restricting access to a fourth. Fearing another event will occur in the historically-slide-prone area, Puget Sound Energy officials are unwilling to restore power as it was and property owners are worried they’ll be stuck in the dark for good.
“The solution they’re proposing for us to do on our own is so crazy and expensive we won’t do it,” said Jeff Bakeman, a Freeland resident who owns a cabin just north of the slide path.
The utility emailed a statement to The Record Friday that said company officials consider this an employee safety issue and are working with homeowners to come up with alternative solutions.
“The safety of our customers and employees is our number one priority,” the release said. “We take into account the safety of accessing and repairing power lines. We will not install them if it means someone might get injured. In addition, we cannot risk installing infrastructure in areas deemed unsafe by local authorities.”
The statement confirmed that two possibilities to restore power to four cabins have been discussed with property owners.
“With winter approaching, we understand the urgency of our customers to restore power back to their properties, and we’re working with them in making that happen,” the statement said.
The cabins are located on Campers Row Walk, a walk-in shoreline community accessed off Hastings and South Brighton Beach roads. It’s an old and tight-knit community with some of the cabins dating back about 100 years.
Bakeman said his cabin has had electrical service since 1935. History shows the area is prone to bluff slides; it’s been mapped by the county as an unstable area since the 1970s. In fact, according to The Record’s archives, a fifth cabin in the very same stretch of beach was destroyed in March 1990, almost 25 years to the day as the last March slide earlier this year, and some have talked about another before that.
One of the homes destroyed this past March has become something of a circus attraction to the once private retreat. It has a huge tree poking through what remains of the roof.
“People come in on their boats and park out there, drinking beer and looking at it,” he said.
Bakeman said the affected cabins used to be supplied with power from the north, with other beachfront homes, but Puget Sound Energy changed the path after a fallen tree severed the line. And once the path was cut from the south with the recent slides, Bakeman said the utility saw restoring power there as too much of a risk — another event might just wipe out the new infrastructure.
Several utility officials recently met with the property owners and offered to provide service from the north again, but each owner would need to pay for lines from their cabins to meters at the bottom of Hastings Road. The offer was declined.
“We said we’re not really interested in that, we’re interested in you restoring our power [the way it was],” Bakeman said.
Another option was to run lines down the bluff from a pole on Bob Galbreath Road. Bakeman said it was considered but attempts to get South End electricians to bid on the project were unsuccessful.
Frances Wood, whose family has owned one of the now power-less cabins since the 1930s, said the problem is less severe for her. Located between two of the destroyed cabins, they still aren’t sure whether theirs will even survive the coming wet season.
“We’re giving it a year to see what the bluff decides,” Wood said.
She did say that while she understands the area is geologically unstable, she thought the utility could be more cooperative as there are few options available to the affected homeowners.
None of the homes are full-time residences, but are used as summer homes. There are some year-round residents, however, just to the north and south.
Bill Oakes, director of Island County Public Works, said this was a new situation for him, one he hasn’t run into on Whidbey.
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of PSE refusing service to properties,” he said.
When asked if there were other beachfront communities with similar geography that might put them at similar risk, he cited homes along Columbia Beach Drive in Clinton, Possession Beach Walk cabins in the Possession Point area and at Hidden Beach, a tiny community north of Greenbank.
According to Bakeman, he did speak with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, the state agency that regulates services providers, about the company’s refusal to restore service as it was. He was told there are exemptions that allow utilities to refuse service in certain instances, such as the situation on Campers Row Walk.
The utility’s statement addressed the issue.
“WUTC reviewed this case and found that PSE acted prudently and responsibly with its handling of this restoration effort,” it said.
A commission spokeswoman said Friday that staff determined Puget Sound Energy is within its rights to refuse service in this case.
Bakeman said everyone understands Puget Sound Energy’s position, but they still want their power back as it was provided before the slide and are hoping company officials will reconsider.