‘Contentious’ river property owners unwilling to sell, 
but some feel they have no choice

by Sue Forde, Citizen Review Online

“Some work will require substantial funding, permits, property acquisition, easements or other types of agreement with willing landowners, some of which could be considered contentious.” – page 4 of “Recommended Restoration Projects for the Dungeness River”, dated  /-1/97

  Clallam County, WA – 5/22/02 - Approximately 40 people[1] attended the meeting at the Old Dungeness Schoolhouse in Sequim, which was brought about by a letter from the county.  At least one landowner’s letter was dated April 15th, but not mailed until May 15th.  He said that many of the other landowners could not attend due to the short notice in receiving the letters.

River’s End Landowners meeting 

Be courteous

Participate and ask questions

Please do not interrupt

These were the posted “ground rules” at the meeting called by Clallam County agencies on May 22, 2002, to explain terms and conditions of a proposed buyout of private property on River’s End, at the lower portion of the Dungeness River.  Andy Brastad, director of Clallam County Natural Resources Department, opened the meeting saying that he recognized that “we all have different ‘feelings’”, and that he wanted to make sure everyone “feels” comfortable, like they’re in a “safe environment.” 

He mentioned Kinkade Island (located upriver where flooding had occurred, and owners are faced with a potential buyout of their property as well), and told the crowd that “this isn’t about Kinkade Island, you are coming to the wrong meeting...we are not going to talk about that---what we are going to talk about today is the lower end of the river, also known as Rivers End Road. We are really here to talk mainly to property owners and to renters who are living along the river.”  The purpose for the meeting, he said, “really,” is to “talk about the county’s [buyout] program” and land acquisition.

Some of you are in a floodway, Brastad said, and the county can’t issue permits because of that.  “Along with that, and equally as important, is that we have three listed fish under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)…and a lot of the money under the SRF Board (State of Washington Governor’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board) is that we can restore the river to its natural floodplain, that will increase the survival of chum…”

One landowner questioned “Bull trout?  In the Dungeness?”  Yes, responded Brastad, adding that there will be time for questions after the presentation.

The next stage of restoration projects begun in 1997

The program began in 1997 with the Dungeness River Management Team’s (DRMT) “Recommended Restoration Projects for the Dungeness River” report of July 1, 1997.  In that report, “the lower 10.8 miles of the river (most of which is privately owned), are the primary focus of restoration…virtually all of the bank hardenings, diking, water withdrawals, gravel mining, bed aggradation, floodplain development…has occurred in the lower river.”  Human activities are blamed for the problem, including “diking, bridge and road constrictions” among other reasons.  Bridges and dikes, of which there are several along the Dungeness River, are pointed to as a primary problem for fish habitat.[2]

Questions raised by landowners

Cathy Lear, representing the Clallam County Department of Natural Resources and former board member of the North Olympic Land Trust (NOLT), then took over the presentation.  She handed out brochures and Letters of Intent for signature – one for Conservation Easements; the other for Fee-Simple Purchases. She stressed that these are for “willing” landowners to consider.

The brochure is a “draft”, Lear clarified.  “We realize there are things that need to be changed,” she said, pointing out that the word “endangered” should read “threatened” referencing the various types of fish mentioned in the brochure. 

Lear explained that they wanted to take advantage of the money available to “improve fish habitat.”  Mark Thomas, president of the River’s End homeowner’s association, asked Lear to explain what was meant by “enhancing fish habitat”.  “What exactly does that mean, and exactly what do you plan on doing that we as property owners can’t already do?” 

Lear responded, “I’d like to save that question until after the presentation.” 

Lear said she wanted to take everyone through the brochure with a power point (slide show) presentation, “because some people are interested in...” she went on, trying to defuse Thomas’ query.  He pressed on, saying that the landowners had better things to do than sit through a presentation of the brochure they already had. 

“Let’s just grab the bull by the horns, and get right to the issue, instead of beating around bush on this whole thing,” Thomas pursued, “and get a show of hands from who are “willing sellers.  I think all of us have better time to be spent than coming down here on a wild goose chase.”  Lear attempted to cut him off, but he persisted. “Why don’t we see a show of hands for willing sellers right now?” he said.  “Well, I’d like to go through this information first, and other experience has shown me that not everyone who is ‘willing’ is willing to say so in public” Lear responded. “It’s a rather private issue.”

Should you be a willing seller?

 “So, should you be a willing seller,” Lear continued with her presentation.  “We would like you to know what your options are.”  There are one of two ways, she said – either an outright purchase or a conservation easement.

She explained conservation easements first, saying it’s an agreement that the landowner has with an easement holder – the North Olympic Land Trust (NOLT).  The landowner can decide what to give to the NOLT, she stated.  According to the brochure, the sale of a conservation easement (CE) means that ownership of the property is retained while the development rights are transferred to the North Olympic Land Trust (NOLT). The NOLT would then be responsible for “monitoring and enforcing the easement.”

“We have five years to complete the project…so we expect to complete the first phase, which consists of acquisition, within two years,” Lear went on.  “Decommissioning and restoration” will take three years after that, she added.

The brochure states that $1.5 million SRFB (Salmon Recovery Funding Board) grant would be used for purchase from willing landowners and restoration activities on that property.  “Without purchase of this property, the second phase of the SRFB contract, restoration, could not take place,” it states.

After purchase of the property, the county will remove any existing structure or buildings, as well as any septic systems.  It will plant floodplain trees and shrubs.  “In other words, the County will remove those conditions that currently prevent the estuary and floodplain from functioning at their historic level.  In this way, the County satisfies the terms of the SRFB grant,” the brochure states.

Citizens ask questions, make comments

Several questions and comments that were raised by attendees included, “Who hires the appraiser?” Response was the county.  “That would seem suspect, since the appraiser would be hired by the county, and the property would be purchased by the county.  That’s like a buyer hiring his own appraiser to set the price of the property he’s planning on buying.”

 “What about public access?” (Rivers End Road is presently a private road, and the general public is not allowed to travel it without permission.  The county’s acquiring title to properties at Rivers End would possibly allow public access to the property.”

“Does a conservation easement (CE) allow public access to the river – to the tidelands?”  CE’s have nothing to do with public access, Lear responded.

“Who maintains the [private] road?”  Many questions were raised about the private road into the properties.

Question about removal of the dike which presently protects the landowners at River’s End.  “I’m not planning to” remove the dike, Lear responded. In reviewing the project description for SRFB, however, Phase I objectives are to purchase approximately 22 acres of property and associated improvements on the west bank of the River to RM 0.9, remove approximately 3,400' of dike, and begin revegetation. (3)

“How can this be successful without 100% participation?” asked one man.  “One half of the land acquisition would be considered a success,” said Martin.

One person wondered about the bridge, and if it constricts the river.  “It turns out that the bridge is in truth a ‘natural constriction’”, said Lear.

“You don’t see this becoming a park down there,” asked one woman.  Some of these intents must be in writing, she said.

NOLT land will have pressure for public access…We’re going to have a lot of bodies… said one person.

What’s the long term plan?  One wanted to know.  “In other places, they’ve created trails.”

Mark Thomas asked about the Corps of Engineers dike.  Martin replied that they might move the dike – set it back, but don’t “plan” on removing it.

“You’ve pitted people against people; you’ve contacted people one at a time,” said one landowner.  Martin responded that there had been two mailings to the landowners.  “I’m sorry if you were left out,” he said.

One person asked if there was a “no sale” signup sheet, for those individuals who did not want to sell.  “Not at this time,” was the response.

One man talked about an approved septic system called a “white water septic system” which would work well in areas like this.  “Why not just replace the septic systems?” he asked.  “There are other issues – fish issues,” Lear replied.

Hazardous materials would be removed, according to Lear.  Questions were raised what were considered “hazardous materials”.  Lear wanted the individual to write a note and give it to her after the meeting.

What does “functioning at historical levels” mean? 

Property owners can do it best; county says they need to see what works and what doesn’t

Mark Thomas asked his earlier question: “What can Clallam County and the state Department of Fisheries and the federal government do to enhance the habitat of the so-called endangered species that’s so different than we the property owners can’t do ourselves without taxpayer’s dollars.  “And that needs to be documented.”

“…goes back to the county when they changed the river the last time, and they got sued over it, and they lost, and they haven’t changed it back.  The county does not have a good reputation down here,” Thomas continued.

Lear: “In terms of monitoring for our own satisfaction to see what does and doesn’t work, but it’s required of the grant.  We have to monitor.  We have to show what we’ve done.”

Thomas: “Those are your proposals. I’m not asking what you’re going to do.  I want to know your opinion of why you’re going to purchase the property.”

Bob Martin, DCD director, responded to this question:  “Remove structures, remove septic systems, revegetation – we have very detailed…probably remove the structures…”  It’s in the grant application, he added.  “The details of restoration things are going to be spelled out in more detail afterwards.”

Lear: We have some information about what occurred in the past about vegetation…this is a conceptual idea…we’re early in that process.  You can see that there is vegetation…”

“You can remove my house.  That’s going to make the salmon run better?” asked another man.

Lear explained that “someone” had done her master’s thesis on vegetation and determined that this area “used to be a floodplain forest”.

Lear: “The river’s not functioning well there…restoration of habitat to historic levels…”

“What about before the Corps of Engineer level?  The river used to run all over down here…you’d never get to your house.”

Lear:  “This is phase 1.”

A common sense solution proposed

Thomas: Historically, with the river, when President Reagan was in office, the federal government had funds which they used every year.  That’s where the county got their gravel. It was free, because they dredged the lower end of the river, and they kept the flooding down to a minimum.  And they were in the river, when the fish weren’t there.  Now that’s common sense that worked, and it would work today. Now that’s something that we the property owners, myself as president of the homeowner’s association, we have tried and tried and tried to get this done. 

“Lloyd Beebe, since he won his lawsuit, takes gravel out of the river every year.  Common sense, this river is the fastest moving river in the U.S… Point A to Point B, gravel moves down the river.  Common sense dictates that it should be removed on an annual basis.  Not only would it enhance the habitat, but it would protect the landowners from flooding, plus the county could use a lot of this gravel.”

“Set up with Dave Blake [Blake Sand and Gravel] to remove and put the river back into its historical channel where the county breached it and got sued, but we came up against a wall of ‘forever pass the buck’ and here we are now.”

 “I fundamentally believe that government should not be buying private property,” stated Bob Forde.  “It erodes our form of government, and ultimately it’s detrimental to private property ownership, which is the backbone of a free society”.  The federal government already owns more than 900 million acres, under the guise of ‘saving salmon.’”  Especially when the newspapers report that we have had the largest return of salmon in many years.

He questioned where the funding for SRFB came from – “is it a federal or state agency?”

Lear explained that, relative to money, the Salmon Recovery Funding Board has both federal and state money available.”  Martin continued that the Board is chaired by William Rucklehaus.” (Rucklehaus is a former EPA director.) 

Forde also wanted to know who NOLT was.  Lear responded that first, this issue is only for willing landowners.  “I can’t stress that enough,” she said.  She went on that NOLT is a private organization funded by volunteers.  They have a membership drive, a volunteer board…” but didn’t address the issue of federal and state money that bought land to place into easements owned by the NOLT. “The county just pays the bills; the land trust holds the easement.” The easements on the private property will be monitored by the NOLT annually.  NOLT also has the right to sell their easement if they wish.

 “What is your ‘vision’?”  one citizen wanted to know, but didn’t get an answer.

One lady stated, “Right now, I love my property; I would love to keep it.  If access is cut off, or power was cut off, I would want to be sure that if people sold around me, I would not be forced to sell.” She talked about the beach rights they own, which are valuable, and wondered who would get those.  Martin replied that the county would obviously inherit those rights along with the purchases.

“Will we be able to remove our items before the county tears down our house?” another woman wanted to know.

“We’ve lived there for 12 years, and would have hoped to live there all of our lives,” one man stated.

Denny Secord reminisced about the past ten years of money foolishly spent.  “I want an apology for ten years of flap I put in with you guys,” he said.

“How many are willing to sell?” one person asked.  Lear responded that she’d say phone calls from “willing sellers” have gone up, a ballpark figure she guesses is “between 15-20”, and as time goes on, they expect to hear from others who are willing.  “All we need is one parcel to start restoration,” she added.

Bob Martin said, “The river will go where it wants, regardless of who owns the property.”

[1] At least five of the group were agency people, including representatives from the Clallam County Department of Community Development (DCD) director Bob Martin and Andy Brastad.  Cathy Lear, Clallam County Department of Natural Resources (also a former member of the North Olympic Land Trust (NOLT), made the main presentation, while Hansi Hals, Land Acquisition Project Coordinator, Jamestown S’Kallam Tribe, Ann Seiter, representing the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and one of the people who worked on the Dungeness River Restoration Work Group, who, under the auspices of the Dungeness River Management Team, devised the plan for removing the landowners from their property.  County Commissioner Steve Tharinger (D) showed up to observe the meeting at 7:50 p.m.

[2] Problems arise when a channel is “fixed” into place, for example, by a bridge….Important river processes are altered when a dike is built that doesn’t allow flood waters to dissipate energy by spreading out across the floodplain, or that inhibits the river’s natural ability to store excessive sediment outside of the channel.  These problems are the primary causes for increased flooding risks and declining fish populations in the Dungeness. ( Page 3 of “Recommended Restoration Projects for the Dungeness River”, dated  7.1.9)

[3] SRFB Manual 18i: Estuarine/Nearshore Marine Application Forms, June 22, 2001 - (4) Short Description of Project

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