Wonn Road dispute may finally end with settlement

A decades-long feud over shoreline property at the end of Wonn Road in Greenbank appears to be heading toward a compromise that will give the public access to the beach while retaining some private property.

The Island County commissioners may vote Tuesday on the settlement with private landowners that splits in half the disputed territory and dismantles half of a low stone wall.

Members of the group Island Beach Access, which is an intervenor in a lawsuit over the property, are expected to oppose the settlement. A year ago, members of the group and other citizens converged on the commissioners and successfully swayed the vote against an earlier settlement.

This time, officials kept the negotiations largely secret. An email that Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks wrote to commissioners about the negotiations last year has been circulating among members of Island Beach Access, and spawned accusations that officials had been overly secretive or even dishonest with the public.

The email, however, suggests that the group was part of the negotiations and also agreed to secrecy, although members dispute Commissioner Jill Johnson’s claim that IBA started the negotiations, agreed to the details and dropped out last minute.

It was the Montgomerys’ lawyer who started this round of settlement talks, members say.

“IBA was involved in negotiations but refused to sign an initial agreement when the provisions were revealed,” IBA founder Mike McVay wrote in an email to the commissioners. “Those provisions gave half of the road to the Montgomerys, blocked the county from ever improving the road without paying Montgomery $350,000, banned parking, picnics, music, barbecues, tables, chairs and use after sundown, to name a few.”

Commissioners met for more than two hours Wednesday during a work session, reviewing the dispute’s long history of proposals and rejections with Banks.

The shoreline lies at the end of Wonn Road off of North Bluff Road and across from the Greenbank Farm. It’s part of Greenbank Beach that sits alongside Holmes Harbor and offers a stunning view of the Cascades.

In 2013, the county sued Bruce and Joanne Montgomery after they constructed a wall to keep the public off the beach. While the Montgomerys say the beach is part of the land they own, the county views it as an extension of Wonn Road. Its shore has been historically used as a public beach and at one time included a dock, county officials say.

The current settlement could split a 50-foot wide section that begins at the stone wall and leads to the tidelands. The wall will remain on the private side, but be knocked down where the 25-foot-wide public path begins.

Under the terms of the settlement, all county park rules will apply to the site, such as it being open dawn to dusk and no fires or camping will be allowed. Additionally, glass bottles would be prohibited, a ban wanted by the Montgomerys.

People would be able to use the area to launch kayaks and other small non-motorized boats. Like other county parks, launching boats from trailers and jet skiing will not be allowed. No parking is allowed on the narrow Wonn Road under current law.

Banks repeatedly stressed that the county risks losing altogether if the case continues in court. Depositions were already being taken for the case.

“There’s a risk to settle and there’s a risk not to settle,” he said. “This is a conservative and reliable and good way to resolve this dispute.”

Twice, judges have ruled against the county in summary judgments, rejecting the government’s assertion that evidence proving the beach property at the end of Wonn Road is clear and that a trial isn’t necessary. The county’s argument was based on a statute that states “no county shall vacate a road that abuts on a body of fresh or saltwater,” Banks told the three commissioners.

“But we brought that (argument) before two judges and both times they’ve rejected it,” he said.

Banks told the commissioners that 90 to 95 percent of all lawsuits end in settlements and that the agreement shouldn’t be seen as a precedent for future land disputes.

“The county makes no admission of guilt and no concession,” Banks said. “We are not acknowledging we were in error. We are not setting a horrible precedent.”

The proposed agreement, called “reciprocal access and use easement,”was offered as a solution after the latest round of negotiations. The group had originally joined the county in settlement talks with the Montgomerys but now opposes some of the terms of the settlement.

“I was extremely disappointed about the Island Beach Access withdrawal,” Hannold said. “I’m just wondering what their game plan is. I certainly have a distaste for their tactics.”

McVay strongly contests claims that the group “withdrew” from the negotiations, alleging that the choice was made for IBA because members refused to accept the terms.

“When we refused to sign such a giveaway, we were shut out of the negotiations by the I.C. Prosecutor,” McVay wrote in his email to the board. “We did not withdraw.”

The email Banks wrote to the commissioners last year shows that attorneys for Island Beach Access were involved in the negotiations, but that everyone agreed to keep the settlement talks secret.

“I have to trust IBA’s attorneys that they have this under wraps,” he wrote. “They have apparently kept it quiet for some time.”

Banks also suggests how the commissioners could deal with any reporters who ask about negotiations.

“I would simply say that we have been working toward trial, and settlement ideas have been presented throughout the litigation, as happens in any case,” he wrote.

This week, Banks explained that it’s not unusual to keep settlement talks secret in such cases; he pointed out that the public now has the chance to read the settlement and comment before it’s possibly adopted Tuesday.

Island County Board of Commissioners meet Tuesday, Jan. 17 at 10 a.m. Public comment is taken at the beginning of the meeting, which is held downstairs in the Courthouse Annex Building, Room #B102, at 1 NE 6th Street, Coupeville.

Whidbey News-Times co-editor Jessie Stensland contributed to this report.

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