In the San Juan Update mailbag today we find this letter from Steve Ulvi…
Tilting with Windmills on San Juan Island
I am compelled to respond to a recent inflammatory opinion piece by the editor in one of our local media outlets. And now another in the last few days. The gist of these is that our County Land Bank employs “bullying” tactics while un-neighborly individuals are bad-mouthing Lance and Rami Amaro who are themselves blameless and simply looking to farm on property adjacent to Mt. Grant Preserve.
It is difficult to understand why an editor would forgo journalistic balance by making accusatory statements and oversimplifying a complex tale of changing property boundaries, easement language, water rights and real estate transactions. In a small community, with wide differences of opinion about nearly everything, it is highly irresponsible to make broad-brush accusations without foundation. The proof that this editor is on a mission to smear rather than to further an important public discourse is the refusal to publish factual corrections submitted in response by the Land Bank. And likely, this response, too.
Both large properties are great examples of preservation of scenic island landscapes. The Amaro Farm with the fir-clad hills behind is a bucolic scene with original buildings restored beautifully, fences in repair and pasture tended. The highest hill in the background, Mt. Grant, has been saved from becoming a subdivision of highly visible homes through multi-faceted negotiations, a grueling fund-raising campaign and adaptive (and highly transparent) management planning by the Land Bank and Preservation Trust. One heckava lot of paper work and due diligence. For all of us. For today and long into the future.
I am not an apologist for the Land Bank. But I am a staunch supporter of this unique and highly successful voter-approved program that has preserved a spectrum of significant parcels of land and shoreline for public use and enjoyment. Today our county still has one of the lowest percentages of public land in western Washington.
So, my take on these free-wheeling tales of jack-booted “bullying’ and nefarious doings goes like this.
The Land Bank staff and appointed Commissioners are regular folks following established law and policies to the best of their abilities in our excitable fishbowl of island gossip, litigious inclinations and public scrutiny. They all work hard to fulfill their mission (our mission really) by researching and purchasing appropriate properties and conservation easements for long-term stewardship in the public interest. They operate in a highly competitive real estate environment where deep pockets often bulldoze the best interests of the general public.
To charge bullying, dishonest intentions and imply collusion between County departments, as if there are concerted efforts to thwart the “dreams” of the Amaros, or anyone else, is untethered to reality. These kinds of editorials are an abuse of logical construction and balanced journalism in the public interest. The phrase “tabloid journalism” comes to mind. Individual investment schemes in no way trump the public interests in proper process and compiling an administrative record from which reasoned decisions are made. I suspect that the editor knows that the Land Bank cannot respond to these misleading allegations exactly because there is a lawsuit ongoing.
Private property rights and real estate law can be darned complicated. Overlying easements and encumbrances additionally so. Water rights are famously said to be “for fightin’ and whiskey for drinkin’” in the West. It is misleading to pen an “expose” without acknowledging these nuanced legal realities. For example, just what are we to understand from the photo of a single unreadable page purportedly substantiating the Amaro’s claim to water rights from Lawson’s private lake? If they have the proper recorded documents and share them with the Land Bank as the property owner in question, then they have explicit water rights and can expect an easement to their fields. If not, then they can’t.
We know that Richard Lawson and family had multiple interests in large parcels of old island property that upon his death necessitated dividing and fair settlement. Years and untold sums had been spent on developing the infrastructure for the “subdivision dream”, but the real estate market deflated and family interests evolved. The Land Bank did a superb job and doggedly negotiated for us, leading to an agreement to purchase the contiguous 141 acre hill that would become Mt. Grant. One of the crown jewels of County lands.
At about that same time, the Amaros entered into a purchase and sale agreement on the adjacent Lawson Farm. Prior to that the Amaros et al met with the Land Bank and Preservation Trust folks to discuss the details of the management vision for Mt. Grant. Mr. Amaro was repeatedly heard to say that they would not have purchased the farm if the adjacent uplands were not to be protected as public land. Eyes wide open, everyone understood the key importance of the north-eastern “thumb” of a Lawson LLC parcel that connected West Valley Road to the paved road to the summit of Mt. Grant. But the real crux was an adjacent wedge of an acre or two that is now part of the Amaro Farm, encumbered by a Lawson-created easement for road access and service for the hilltop subdivision. Now treated as a public access and parking area easement for Mt. Grant.
That “thumb” parcel had been in forest tax deferment for over a decade. Tom Lawson and the Amaros are said to have wrangled for nearly 2 years trying to come to an agreement on that parcel, but could not do so without completing a forest management plan and /or paying substantial deferred taxes in order to make the sale. Only then, in 2017, did the Land Bank enter the picture as an interested buyer. There was no Amaro deal on the table. Not only was the parcel of critical import for preserve access, but the Land Bank would not have to pay deferred taxes, or draw up an approved forest plan, which was an obvious plus for Tom Lawson who was ready to sell. It is also said that there were rising tensions between the Amaros and Lawson. Of what benefit to the “farm dream” was this attempted purchase by the Amaros? To potentially undercut Preserve access?
Meanwhile the Land Bank staff and many volunteers were working diligently to remake and improve the summit area with accessible trails, parking barriers, gates, interpretive signage, a privy, split rail fences and other rustic accommodations while attempting to stop illegal dirt bike incursions. The public was involved in all planned actions except those of an emergency nature. I have hiked or driven to the top 25-30 times. At all times of the year. I have seen little in the way of trash anywhere, including in the disputed parking area at the entry. That is very unusual for public land next to a highway and a real testament to Land Bank stewardship.
Geraldine Lane (created by the Lawsons) runs along the eastern lowland boundary of the Preserve. The Amaros requested removal of a gate installed by the Land Bank to (allow Amaro access) but keep out public vehicles. The Land Bank complied. The Amaros insisted that a fence be built all along that forested lane and stated that they would do so if the Land Bank did not. Naturally the Land Bank said go for it. Hasn’t happened. But a cursory examination begs the question as to why Geraldine Lane is of import now? There are the Amaro statements of plans to build house sites along there on the farm side, build a whiskey distillery and whatnot. Farm dreams or real estate development dreams? Or both?
Due to the impasse and growing conflict about the easement for service and road access across the small parcel at the entrance area that is now owned by the Amaros, the Land Bank proposed an outright purchase or trade. The Amaros have so far declined this good faith solution. In fairness, perhaps they believe that they have clear water rights though concrete now obstructs those pipes at Lawson Pond. But if they do have an iron-clad water right (therefor a legal easement) then they need not have gone to all the trouble to try to purchase that parcel.
Then there are the trumped up, breathless claims that the County refused to spend more of our time and money on mediation to hash out four points of contention set forth by the Amaros. First, the privy was already moved as requested and the notion of an expensive, permanent pit toilet is a non-starter. Secondly, installing and maintaining garbage cans at a small preserve with very light visitation is nothing but an open invite for greater problems with garbage dumping. Third, the fence; the Amaros offered to go ahead and build that on their side of Geraldine Lane. Lastly, no property owner in their right mind would grant general indemnity for trespass to the entire acreage of adjacent properties. Done. No need for mediation.
On this last issue, the latest editorial falsely conflate as similar, the usual process of indemnifying property owners who have donated or sold a public trail easement across their private property with the Amaro’s insistence on indemnification over their whole acreage of property next to Mt. Grant. The first is standard procedure, as people will use the trail crossing private land and “things happen”, the second an unprecedented and silly expectation.
So after walking out of some meetings, the Amaros lawyered-up and decided to stop talking and sue the County. They assert that the Land Bank’s “service area and road easement” (which is said to be simple and unambiguous) is limited to subdivision access/management and clearly not public recreational access. Common sense would indicate that families in a dozen houses on the hill and their guests (not to mention years of continual construction traffic) and a similar type of traffic turning onto Geraldine Lane (if the Amaros continue with stated interests in homesite development) would far exceed controlled public recreational access to Mt. Grant.
Oddly, perhaps predictably, the Amaro Farm today is pretty enough but lacks the familiar earthy smells and sounds of a real farm operation. These biased editorials, akin to blogs and not journalism really, have confused, rather than illuminated these issues. The Amaros are not simply innocent bystanders. If the intention was to rejuvenate community cohesion and neighborly civility, I think that those efforts have failed. A little like spraying gas on a smoldering house fire while giving lip service to “trying to save the place”. This over-heated and largely fictional public tale will be sorted out based upon the factual administrative record at the first hearing in Superior Court scheduled for August 29. The Land Bank has rightly asked for a summary judgement.