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Property cleanup leads to court battle: Covington woman removes trash, tires from land, gets cited for conducting 'unlawful' project
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Gary Kissel/Journal
Gwen Bartol of Covington is being prosecuted for trimming blackberries and removing old tires and garbage along a section of Soos Creek that runs through her property.

By Jamie Swift
King County Journal Reporter

July 16, 2006

Gwen Bartol thought she was beautifying her property by cutting back bushes and removing dozens of tires and a washing machine from Soos Creek, a salmon-bearing stream that meanders through her expansive Covington estate.

"I was proud of myself," she said. "I thought I was doing environmental cleanup."

But according to the state, Bartol was committing a crime.

The 54-year-old real estate agent is scheduled for a jury trial in September in King County District Court on the charge of conducting an "unlawful hydraulic project" on the creek, which is a Green River tributary.

The violation is a gross misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Bartol was cited by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife more than two years ago. That was after living on the property with her husband for more than 20 years.

Years ago, the couple built a fort for their children on the banks of creek, as well as a small wooden bridge that spans the stream — activities that would not be allowed without a permit under modern environmental laws.

Since the citation was issued in 2004, Bartol has been embroiled in a contentious and confusing battle with the state over exactly what she's done wrong — and how to mitigate the alleged damage she's caused to the wildlife habitat on her property.

King County Prosecutor Leah Altaras, representing the state, said the fish and wildlife department "alleges they offered more than one warning" to Bartol and that "she did not heed their warnings."

That's why this case is headed to court, a rare occurrence for such violations, which in most instances are settled with warnings and fines.

In fact, of the 1,289 contacts fish and wildlife officers made in 2005 regarding reports of unlawful hydraulic projects, only 78 resulted in any level of action — and just 26 of the cases were filed with prosecutors across the state.

What's proved frustrating for Bartol's attorney, Scott LaFranchi, is the broad nature of the law under which she is being prosecuted. RCW 77.55.00 states that "any work that will use, divert, obstruct, or change the natural flow" of a stream requires approval from the state.

Under that rule, LaFranchi said, you can't put your foot in the water.

"I understand why the law exists," LaFranchi said. "But is that the intent of the law? To go after people like Gwen for removing trash, tires and a washing machine from a creek.

"The fact that jail time is even on the table seems extreme to me," he said.

Bartol has spent thousands of dollars, first trying to do what the state wanted her to do, and more recently fighting prosecution.

In that time, the stress of the situation led to her divorce.

"It was just too much," Bartol said. She visibly shakes when talking about her frustration with all that has transpired.

Bartol said she didn't know she was doing anything illegal when she cleared blackberry bushes along her property line to remove garbage that motorists had discarded over the years.

Bartol also said she had no clue that removing old tires, a washing machine and other trash from Soos Creek, or placing boulders around a man-made creek diversion, were violations of a state law aimed at protecting salmon-bearing streams.

Bartol disputes the state's claim that she removed several trees and salmon berry bushes that provided shade and erosion control for Soos Creek.

"I'm not doing anything different I haven't done for 22 years," she said.

But all of these activities require permits, Altaras said. "(The state) doesn't discourage people from pulling garbage from streams, but they prefer you get a permit.

"The point of the legislation is to protect fish and there are a lot of salmon in the stream that goes through her property," she said.

Bartol said when she was approached in 2004, she was amenable to performing remediation — removing the rocks, planting trees, installing woody debris in the creek — but at some point, a working relationship with state officials turned adversarial.

The state wanted her to perform remediation on the property and accept a deferred sentence, basically a plea bargain confessing to the crime. The deal called for her to be on probation for a year and pay a $3,500 fine.

"No way I was going to sign that," she said. "I'm a proud woman. I'm not going to bend over."

Bartol said she doesn't believe a jury will send her to jail for trying to improve her property.

Bartol and her ex-husband had planned on retiring and preparing the property to be a bed-and-breakfast and a place to host weddings. But those designs have been put on indefinite hold, because as long as there are pending violations, no permits can be obtained.

"It's a lose-lose situation for everyone," LaFranchi said. "Because the more situations you have like this, the harder it is to pass regulations that will actually serve to protect the environment."

Swift can be reached at jamie.swift@kingcountyjournal.com or 253-872-6646.



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