Snohomish County, WA: The Delta: Living outside the mainstream

By Peyton Whitely
Times Snohomish County bureau

Standing in a pear orchard, former Colorado teacher Mac Dougall pushed back his cap and asked:

"What do you do with something that hasn't quite lost its possibilities? How do you keep that?"

How indeed.

For those such as Dougall who call Ebey Island home, their surroundings conjure up rustic, timeworn images of the Monterey Bay, Calif., area of John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row" or even Seattle's Lake Union houseboat community of decades ago, when beats, hippies and other bohemians lived there.

"You could write a Steinbeck novel about this place," Dougall said.

Those images are part of the Snohomish River Delta, a place where government agencies own thousands of acres, where private-property owners own thousands more, where the river meets Puget Sound and where inhabitants range from the nearly homeless to people whose families have owned land for more than a century.

Steinbeck might have appreciated the makeshift communities that have sprouted on Ebey and Smith, two largely undeveloped islands in the delta. Lives on the islands range from middle-class comfort to poverty and from those involved in domestic violence to those of pear-orchard tranquility.

It's unknown exactly how many people live in the delta. Census-tract information doesn't correspond to the delta, but several thousand people live on the islands there or along the banks of the Snohomish River. One census estimate put Ebey Island's population at 1,404 in 2000, but many inhabitants don't bother with such formalities as mailboxes or permanent residences.

The land is lushly green, filled with orchards and fields and cattle and often junked cars, a continual problem. Moorages with no signs operate along the shores, with boats lined up sometimes three or four deep along piers. Gangways lead over dikes and down to the floating craft. For many on Ebey Island, home is a trailer or camper pushed onto someone else's property.

The land is also coveted by Snohomish County and the city of Everett. The county owns more than 1,400 acres in the Snohomish River estuary, much of it for parkland. Everett's Water Pollution Control Facility, with two large sewage-treatment ponds covering more than 150 acres, dominates the south end of Smith Island.

Preserving resources, lives

To John Roney, the special-projects coordinator for the county Department of Planning and Development Services, there are two stories in the area.

One is about the land and preserving its resources. That involves such complicated issues as salmon recovery, growth management and land use. Another is about the people who have come to live there, people trying to preserve the lives they've come to live or to make new ones.

"To me, that's a different story," Roney said. "Where do they live if they lose their job or their wife kicks them out, or they just got out of jail?"

Such questions have perplexed the county and other agencies for decades.

Ann Shipley is one of many people who rent space in a field on Smith Island. Its very nice place to live, she says. I like it here.

"We've been out to Ebey Island for years," said Ed Soderman, a county code-enforcement officer.

"It's primarily junkyard conditions, travel-trailer occupancy, things like that. There are shoreline issues, whether they were set up for commercial use or not."

Recreational-vehicle occupants are allowed to camp for six months out of 12, and before taking action against them, officers have to prove the inhabitants aren't "recreating" for longer periods.

A first step is determining whether the occupants have another address that is more than a post-office box. A notice giving 60 or 90 days' warning to vacate may be issued. If violators don't leave, their case can be referred to the county prosecutor's office, but such civil procedures can take several years to wend through the courts.

"The usual thing is, they're out, then they come right back," Soderman said. "I've had property I've been to four or five times over the years."

Evidence of such challenges can be seen all over the delta.

Along 12th Street Northeast on Smith Island, a cluster of trailers, campers and recreational vehicles stands in a field, with a U.S. flag flapping from a 20-foot pole. One of the vehicles is a faded-blue Chevrolet pickup, with weeds poking through its wheels and a camper shell on the back. That's where Rick lives. He wouldn't give his last name but said he's 53 and came from California and Eugene, Ore., with lungs that have been destroyed by years of working in auto-body shops without a respirator.

Rick subleases the land from another tenant. He rides a bicycle 3-1/2 miles to Marysville for food and relies on Social Security disability payments for income.

"You can see what we've got, dude," he said. "It's a beautiful place."

Then Rick added another observation, an indication that utopia even the low-rent variety may be elusive: "This is one step above being homeless."

Rick pays about $200 a month for the space to park the truck. He gets electricity via an extension cord from a house several hundred feet away and water from a garden hose that sometimes freezes in the winter. The house is rented by a person who declined to identify himself or discuss his subtenants.

Poet Falklin cruises Ebey Slough in a boat he found underwater. I would like to get old here, says Falklin, 45, who with his wife, Angel, is buying a houseboat in the area.

"I've got a computer," Rick said proudly. "I'm on the Net."

A look inside the camper revealed cramped and decrepit quarters, with a loose rabbit sleeping next to a computer keyboard and a full-size drill press standing in the middle of the floor. Rick sleeps on a shelf above the pickup cab.

Living in a trailer next door is Ann Shipley, 43, who used to live on a boat in Port Angeles and has hearing problems.

"It's very nice place to live," she said. "I like it here. I pay my rent, $300 a month."

But then she said she had to leave, to get to court to appear in a hearing on a domestic-violence dispute.

Down the road, Roxy Ergler, 52, started sobbing in her driveway because she was being evicted after losing a legal battle to buy a house and property.

"I've been going through this for two years," she said. "They've got my money. How can I move? I'm just so ill."

In a barn a short distance away, a man in a cowboy hat stood amid litter, abandoned cars, chickens and barking dogs.

"We'll be here another week or two at the most," said the man, who identified himself as Merrill, 59.

He said he and his wife, Joyce, 60, were being evicted because they hadn't paid rent for three months. The septic system had failed, said Merrill, with the evidence showing up inside the trailer they call home.

'I would like to get old here'

While some residents along 12th Street are coping with the collapse of their lives, other delta residents talk about how they've found the place of their dreams.

"I hope they don't mess with us," said "Poet" Falklin, who explained that he got his nickname from his mother because of the way he could make up rhymes as a child in England.

"I would like to get old here," said Falklin, 45, who with his wife, Angel, is buying a houseboat along the river for $30,000.

Falklin estimated the houseboat would cost $300,000 on Lake Union.

"There's a trapdoor in the living room. You can sit on the couch, watch the Mariners game while you fish," he said.

"The only hassle about living here is the bathroom is up there" on shore.

Along the delta are sumptuous yachts, a 1945-vintage tugboat restored to pristine condition and even a sparkling floatplane. But for every craft docked along the delta that's received hours of care, there's another with flaking paint, rotting sails and a fungus-covered deck.

Mickie and Evelyn Jones laugh about that. They own an Ebey Slough moorage and acknowledge that they attract a particular clientele, not like the one found in more-established marinas.

"There's not a lot of places anymore where you can keep a boat that's not that fancy," said Evelyn, 82, sitting alongside Mickie, 80, in their mobile home.

They've come to know their tenants well.

"A lot of 'em are working on their boats," Evelyn said. "They've been working on them for their whole life. Most of them never go anywhere."

Preserving heritage

For all the people who have arrived only recently and lead transient lives, others have made their lives on the islands.

Alex Alexander was found lying in the dirt under a house along the shore on the south end of Ebey Island, trying to preserve a heritage that dates to the late 1800s.

Alexander, 68, who has a doctorate in plant physiology, said he finds satisfaction in trying to restore the home built by his great-grandparents in 1882.

"There are worse things to do in retirement," he said.

Yet Alexander also has found himself and his family caught up in the disputes swirling around the islands. Efforts to build often run into government requirements because the low-lying islands are in a flood plain.

"We've been trying to get a permit for two years" to redo the house's foundation, he said. That would allow the replacement of rotting timbers with concrete, a big step toward restoration.

"You can't get one by any reasonably sane procedure," he said.

Roxy Ergler faces eviction from her home on Smith Island. How can I move? Im just so ill, she says.

Though conditional approval has been granted to do the foundation work in a flood plain, he still needs building and grading permits. One possible requirement is that he'll have to place the house on a foundation raising it 18 feet to meet federal flood-insurance guidelines.

Alexander points out the house has endured for 120 years without being swept away, but the guidelines still stand.

A mile away, Phil Cunningham, 65, a retired commercial fisherman and a Dike District No. 1 commissioner, said he could live in Everett but has chosen to live on Ebey on about 30 acres he and his wife, Cora, have had for 10 years.

He's built a beautiful home in a former barn, but he wonders how long the life they live can continue.

"It's kind of a backwater, and we'd like to live here, but society always is looking for more places to buy up," he said, referring to city and county purchases of thousands of acres in the area.

He noted that a neighbor had worked for years to get permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to repair a dike but that around the same time, the county was breaching dikes about a mile away to allow other lands to flood, restoring fish habitat.

"Absolutely," there are opposing public policies, he said, with island residents caught in the middle.

Trouble behind the scenes

Many of the paths that led people to Ebey and Smith islands have been far from straight.

Even a cursory check of records in the Snohomish County Courthouse reveals dozens of disputes involving the delta and its inhabitants, giving a glimpse of some of the tensions that linger behind the outwardly serene setting.

Falklin has a criminal record for arrests including drug possession and driving without a license. Shipley's domestic-violence dispute describes a two-year battle that involved being beaten and her trailer being set on fire.

As long ago as 1985, court records describe how the prosecutor's office had filed a civil lawsuit citing violations of the State Environmental Policy Act, Shorelines Management Act and other rules to get an injunction against a moorage operator. The moorage owner hired a prominent Everett attorney and legislative leader, and the case was dismissed.

Dougall, who said he has a master's degree from the University of Colorado and came to Ebey Island 10 years ago after a divorce, said the value of the delta is that it provides a place for people to try to escape such tribulation, although sometimes unsuccessfully. He said a house on his property burned and that he couldn't get a permit to rebuild because of flood-plain development restrictions.

Yet he also walks through his orchard, coming to a place where he has left the branches intact, forming a leaf-shrouded aisle, a scene he thinks an impressionist painter would have appreciated.

"One of the things it provides is solace, a chance to heal," Dougall said. "It's as if people who want to live at a different pace are illegal. There's a lot of solace in living in a place like this."

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or


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