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Clearing produces wetland violation

A mystery project on a Jones Road property will likely result in a lengthy list of violations.

Island County Code enforcement officers received a call last Thursday afternoon reporting backhoe activity on a roughly 20-acre parcel of property abutting the beach.

What officials discovered upon arrival at the property dropped jaws.

Three backhoes were observed carrying out work activity, the reason for which the two contractors, father and son Pat and John McCourt, would not initially divulge. Officers found one of three heavy pieces of equipment lying in a ditch as helpless as an overturned turtle. The ditch, as it turned out, was a wetland and a stream.

“I don’t know what they were attempting to accomplish,” Planning Director Jeff Tate said.

He later learned that a smaller Bobcat excavator slid down the embankment the contractors created as it attempted to turn around. An additional backhoe was brought in to rescue the Bobcat. And that backhoe suffered the same fate.

“As they dug and dug and dug, the equipment sunk in deeper,” Tate said. “That hole is truckloads deep. It was one bad decision after another brought on by panic. It wasn’t malicious behavior, it was irresponsible.”

At the time, neither member of the father and son contracting team, whose names were revealed in public county documents, was forthcoming with information that could shed light on the muddy maelstrom. The property is owned by Beverly Brown, who did not immediately return phone calls.

“This is as bad a situation as I’ve ever seen,” said Tate.

The property owner, a relative of the McCourts, reportedly hired the contractors. They were apparently attempting to clear an area to install fencing for an old barn located on a bluff.

An attempt by code officials to formally deliver a cease and desist order to one of the contractors was not well received.

“Pat took the order, crumpled it up and jammed it in his pocket,” Tate said.

Brown, the younger McCourt’s aunt, apologized on the contractors’ behalf, citing a lengthy work schedule as a reason for the short temper. Tate said the explanation implied a need for project expediency.

In addition to not obtaining permits, the contractors pushed debris, including downed trees, to the the shoreline. When Tate later met with Brown, he said she was cooperative.

“She seemed to understand the gravity of what happened. But this whole thing is pretty amazing,” Tate said of the unsanctioned project taking place on land located in eagle habitat that possesses two streams and a wetland. “People need to know this is not acceptable at all.”

The planning director said his department will deal with the alleged misconduct based on facts. One fact, he added, is the McCourts’ history. They were cited in 2006 for a code wetland infraction for work performed on their own property.

“We look at that when we’re trying to determine fines and culpability,” Tate said. “We usually don’t go after the contractors doing the work, but the owner. In this case the contractors have a history.”

An order to pay a $5,000 civil infraction was mailed to Brown for the wetland violation. The site will also have to be completely restored. Mitigation costs could be as much as $40,000, Tate estimated. County code also provides a mechanism whereby a violation can trigger either criminal or civil prosecution, a determination Tate has yet to make. Pushing debris onto the beach is also a state Fish and Wildlife and Department of Ecology matter.

“What we’re doing is trying to rank the severity of the numerous violations,” Tate said.

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