Island County’s commissioners are far apart on whether to accept an offer that could end litigation over a stone wall blocking public beach access at the east end of Coupeville’s Wonn Road.
At a lively work session Wednesday, occasionally interrupted by remarks from a capacity crowd, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson emphatically argued in favor of rejecting the complex 66-page offer, while fellow Commissioners Jill Johnson and Rick Hannold advocated accepting it. The offer is set for further discussion and public comment on Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 11 a.m. during the commissioners’ regular meeting, downstairs in the Courthouse Annex Building, Room #B102, 1 N.E. 6th St. in Coupeville,
Even if the commissioners accept the offer by a majority vote, it would still have to be approved by a judge; another party to the suit, Island Beach Access, has pledged to scuttle it.
The fracas began when part-time Coupeville residents Joanne and Bruce Montgomery in 2008 built the low wall adjacent to their home, claiming its location was on their property. The county in March 2013 sued to remove it, and pre-trial negotiations last week yielded the settlement offer. It would give the contested property back to the county when the Montogomerys die or after 10 years, whichever comes later. But the county still won’t get the land if the Montgomerys instead choose to give it to one of four other, nearby waterfront properties, or if the board agrees to accept a different, comparable beach access instead. In addition, the county would get a west-side piece of beachfront property and $50,000.
In Wednesday’s work session — the commissioners’ first opportunity to weigh in on the offer — Price Johnson staked out what most in the room clearly felt was the high ground. She said settling would send the wrong message to property owners.
“Anybody who has $50,000 and patience and the ability to influence a board of commissioners could do the same thing at any of our road ends… We shouldn’t encourage anyone to build walls across right-of-ways, and by settling, we’re doing just that.”
Price Johnson added that she thinks the county’s case is robust.
“I believe we have a very strong legal position, and we would set a terrible precedent by backing away from it,” she said. “Not having extremely clear title is not unusual in Island County. What is unusual is that somebody actually built a wall across a road. That I don’t want to reward.”
She said the county’s legal position is supported by a state Attorney General’s legal opinion and by a Washington law prohibiting a county from vacating a road that “abuts on” a body of water, saying, “I believe that road goes all the way to the water, and therefore I feel compelled by state law not to vacate it.”
But Johnson pointed out that whether Wonn Road “abuts on” the water is one of the questions that led to the litigation and precluded the county’s simply tearing the wall down. She repeatedly emphasized that certainty over getting some beach access through the offer, even if the Wonn Road access never returns to the public, is better than taking a chance of getting none by pursuing and losing the litigation.
“We have a settlement offer that guarantees us two beach access points,” she said. “We could drag on litigation for a long time and not get anything. I’m going to take certainty over risk.”
She said accepting the offer was not capitulating to a wealthy resident who did as he wished, heedless of the law.
“I’m not saying these are delightful people, and I think the wall is a big middle finger to the community,” she said. “But we set as precedent that you can’t just write a check. You have to replace the experience (of public beach access) or give us an enhanced one. We didn’t let them write a check… I can look anyone in the eye and say this is a good deal.”
Rick Hannold said he, too, favors taking the offer.
“The case is not clear-cut,” he said. “The settlement is.”
Hannold raised the question of the Montgomerys’ interests.
“What about the property rights of the owner?” he asked. “What if he’s right?”
“Let a judge decide that,” Price Johnson responded. “Let’s not have the Board of Island County complicit in that action.”
“If we let a judge decide, we’re gambling a lot for the county,” Hannold said.
“Then it wasn’t ours in the first place,” Price Johnson concluded.
The crowd applauded.
View the settlement offer at http://tinyurl.com/hpj54m9.