Letter from Gene Helfman & Judy Meyer to County Council

To: Jamie Stephens, Bob Jarman, Rick Hughes
From: Gene Helfman and Judy Meyer
Re: Clure/Land Bank purchase by The San Juan County Land Bank

“In stewardship of Land Bank properties, we constantly strive to find the balance between ecological stewardship and public access”.

—Mandate of the San Juan County Land Bank

We apologize for the length of this email; it started out quite short.

We have become aware that the County Council will meet on Lopez on Tuesday and will visit the Clure property for which the Land Bank has secured a purchase and sale agreement. The purchase involves two approximately 5 acre parcels, termed A and B, north and south. An adjoining third Parcel C lies between B and Meadow Lane to the south. This proposed purchase has become highly contentious for a number of reasons.

Conversion from private to public ownership. By owning parcel A, the Land Bank would obtain deeded access to a private right-of-way to two miles of publicly owned Shark Reef shoreline. This right-of-way has been private for over 40 years and is shared by six families and the Port of Lopez. Part of the value of these properties is the deeded, private nature of the beach right-of-way. When we purchased our parcel 22 years ago, which has a water view but is not on the shoreline, the existence and private nature of the right-of-way were chief selling points. An additional 40 or so private land holdings exist along the shore from White Cliffs to the south and Otis Perkins Day Park to the north and have access to the shore via their own holdings, which extend down the bluffs and to the high water mark.

The Land Bank could gain access to the right-of-way by purchasing only Parcel A but the seller is also requiring the sale of Parcel B because “. . . creation [of] public access would devalue the remaining parcel.” (Land Bank document).   We also share that easement and will likely see a similar decline in value of our property. When directly challenged on this point, the Director of the Land Bank wrote, “. conservation land increases neighbor’s property values, in some cases by as much as 20%.  . . it seems clear that [the impact] will in fact be positive and not negative.” Yes, positive impacts occur when adjacent land involves a retirement of development rights, meaning nearby properties will not have someone building next door or nearby; their continued privacy is guaranteed. That raises nearby property values. The current situation is just the opposite. Privacy of current landowners will be reduced because they will now share the easement with the public at large. Clearly the Clures recognized this and the Land Bank’s agreement to purchase both pieces acknowledges this. The Director’s statement also shows either a misunderstanding of how conservation easements work, or an attempt at dissembling.

Lack of public notice. The driving force behind this purchase has been the Lopez Community Trails Network (LCTN), a local non-profit that has encouraged and worked with the Land Bank in securing the sales agreement. We feel that LCTN but especially the Land Bank have not acted in good faith in pursuing this acquisition and in informing the public of its existence and impacts.

Despite public statements to the contrary, no affected stakeholders, a number that approaches 50 separate parcels, were personally notified of the intended agreement. The process has been less than transparent and to many of us borders on secrecy. Land Bank meetings were held and agreements signed with just the minimum of public notification. Several Land Bank agendas speak only of a “Lopez Shoreline” item. The first mention of the Clure property by name in an agenda is for the November meeting. How many county residents read proposed agendas of all public agencies when announcements of public meetings are posted? We have accumulated a history of this lack of transparency and can provide the details.

Misleading descriptions. In the process of trying to win public approval (and outside funding), the property has been misrepresented by both LCTN and the Land Bank. Public documents refer to “a gentle walking path . . . along a streambed to the beach” and “it should be relatively easy to provide access to persons with limited mobility”. The path is steep: more than 100 yards are at a 20% or greater slope (ADA requirements are <5%, with short stretches up to 8%). The “stream” is an alder-choked drainage ditch dug by the Port to receive run-off from the Airport during heavy rains. It is otherwise dry. Land Bank and other documents say “The high bluffs of adjacent properties create a pristine quality for visitors.” These bluffs are rapidly and continually eroding (read dangerous) feeder banks. Large chunks calve off regularly, bringing down large trees. Climbing on or carving initials in these soft substrates could easily precipitate major landslides. You have to look at them to see how potentially dangerous they are. The publicly owned lands are below mean high water. This means that walkers on the beach at high tide will be trespassing and walking dangerously near the cliffs.

Fire hazard. The promotional materials for the sale include making “two miles of walkable beach available for walks, sunset vistas . . .” One of our greatest fears is a beach fire on a shoreline that is inaccessible to firefighters. In our communications with the various groups, we have expressed our desire that any management plan include restrictions on horses, bicycles, and dogs to protect wildlife, and a dusk to dawn closure to reduce the likelihood of beach fires and shooting off fireworks; the latter activity by trespassers has caused fires in the past. To even mention “sunset vistas” shows how little the proponents have thought through the potential impacts of their plans.

Loss of protection of the shoreline. We have been told that acquisition by the Land Bank will prevent this property from being developed and hence will protect the shoreline. These three parcels have been for sale for over 15 years. If sold privately, a maximum of three private residences could be built. The new owners would be our neighbors, people we could talk to, who would likely have a vested interest in maintaining the privacy of the easement and the quality of the beach .    Public acquisition and the resultant increased numbers of visitors would achieve shoreline degradation not preservation.

Unknown access point and parking. “The acquisition is adjacent to Port of Lopez property around the airport which would allow provision of public access, and potentially parking off Shark Reef Road.“ (Land Bank document). The Clures previously sold the easternmost portion of Lots A and B to the Port of Lopez. Hence Eagle’s Roost lane passes through Port land. The seller did not retain an easement over the now Port-owned property, essentially landlocking their own land. When asked how the public will get to the right-of-way to the beach, we have been told variously it would be off the Port land on Eagle’s Roost. The Port has not agreed to this.

Alternatively, suggested access could be along Meadow Lane. Meadow Lane is a private road that serves the six homes that share the beach easement. Lot C, currently not part of the sales agreement (at least to our knowledge), also lies along Meadow Lane. Without knowing the details of the purchase agreement, which have not been disclosed, we do not know how much this alternative public access route will impact our lives, changing from periodic to heavy vehicular traffic, literally in our backyards. And where will all these people park. Hopefully not at the blind curve where Shark Reef Road intersects Eagle’s Roost and Meadow Lane (at the precise south end of the runway).

Assurances of minimal use. We are particularly concerned that what is widely recognized as an ecologically sensitive and scientifically valuable, relatively undisturbed portion of the Lopez coastline will be overrun with visitors, many from off-island who often do not act as responsibly toward our island as do the residents. The only data we can use comes from BLM counters at Watmough Bay, where over 18,000 visitors were recorded last year. The proposed public beach access would lie directly along the route from Lopez Village to Shark Reef County Park, probably the most heavily visited natural tourist destination on the island. The Land Bank has continually assured us that they will do little to advertise the existence of this beach access, but it would not take too many entries in Trip Advisor, The Seattle Times, Sunset Magazine, and The New York Times to make this a national destination. Look what’s happened to Watmough.

Monitoring of restrictions. When asked how any access restrictions will be monitored and enforced, the Director of the Land Bank has repeatedly referred to “many people who volunteer on the preserves”. On further investigation, we have learned from a Land Bank employee that the “many people” consists primarily of land owners adjacent to Land Bank holdings. So the Land Bank will take away our privacy and open up currently-protected, ecologically sensitive shoreline and if we want any guarantees of minimal impact, we will have to be on the ground seven days a week challenging the public.

Ecological sensitivity of the beach. No assessment of the ecological value or sensitivity of the affected beach has been done by the Land Bank. When asked whether the Land Bank had conducted any assessments of the ecology of the shoreline, we were deflected with, “We prepare detailed management plans based on the ecological attributes of a site and design an access plan based on these characteristics.” (email from the Land Bank Director). But this assessment occurs only AFTER a sale is transacted.

We already know that this is an ecologically sensitive area. It is a designated as a Critical Beach Area by SJC. Humans have an impact on beaches, and the more people the greater the negative impact. Aside from all the wildlife that frequents and nests on this shoreline, it includes Shark Reef itself, rocks that serve as the only Lopez haulout area for marine mammals and seabirds from Shark Reef County Park northward.   Shark Reef is designated as a National Wildlife Refuge, requiring boaters to stay at least 200 yards distant. At low tide, Shark Reef lies barely 100 yards from the water’s edge. Literally a stone’s throw away. Additionally, mother harbor seals regularly deposit their pups on this shoreline. Our neighbors see them often, and one neighbor has even seen dogs attack and kill seal pups.

The “wild and remote” nature of the beach also has scientific value. We volunteer with the UW Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team. We walk the beach looking for and identifying dead seabirds. The data are used in establishing conservation priorities for seabirds and even in setting duck hunting quotas. This is a special locale for COASST because it is so undisturbed, which provides them with valuable, relatively unbiased data. Most beaches get visited by people and especially dogs, the latter with a natural tendency for moving and disarticulating dead birds. We encountered an LCTN member, one of the most ardent supporters of this acquisition, with an unleashed dog while we were conducting a bird survey last Wednesday, despite a county leash law. Open the beach to the public and multiply that by ???

The Land Bank’s credibility on Lopez. This highly contentious, non-transparent conversion of private land to public use has damaged the credibility of and public trust in the Land Bank. The Land Bank’s official mandate includes the wording, “To preserve in perpetuity areas that have environmental, . . . scientific, . . . or low-intensity recreational value.” The Land Bank has been unfaithful to its mandate in agreeing to the purchase before assessing the ecological resources and sensitivity of this shoreline. Everything about the proposed purchase and development of this ecologically sensitive, scientifically valuable, nearly pristine beach seems to tip the balance away from protection in favor of public access and violates that mandate.

We intend to be present at the field trip on Tuesday and will have numerous questions that we have not been able to get the Land Bank to answer so far.