Out with the trash
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:28 PM
"As he treks through an abused piece of North Whidbey land there are times Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke can only shake his head in disbelief.Somebody once took pride in this property, he said. That's the sad part.If so, it was a long time ago. For the past few years, the five-acre parcel along Henni Road has been little more than a garbage dump with tons of worthless clutter and castoffs strewn over nearly every square foot.Now, it's up to Island County taxpayers to clean it up.As the county continues its slow but persistent crackdown on illegal junkyards, some of the worst offenders are finally being shut down, said Bakke.These are our top priority cases, he said this week standing outside the Henni Road house. I hope there's nothing worse than this.The mess is everywhere - a jumble of tires, rusted car hulks, a bus, mattresses, rain-soaked furniture, shattered glass, antiquated adding machines, motorcycle parts, rotting hoses and aluminum cans broadcast in all directions. Household waste and trash is piled haphazardly and a dilapidated mobile home, crammed-packed with more junk, decays nearby. Ironically, a string of festive Christmas lights dangle from the home's eves and a battered Barbie Dream House lies wistfully in the front yard.Bakke said he would not set foot inside the property's main house because it is filled with garbage and feces. People lived there up until this summer when the county finally began eviction proceedings. Now, Bakke said, the house and most of the outbuildings are not worth saving.Island County has been actively involved in trying to get the property cleaned up for several years. About three years ago, the Health Department cleaned up hazardous and garbage waste on the land using volunteer labor and a little local tax money and donations to pay for it.Within weeks it had reverted back to this, said Bakke.ENOUGH IS ENOUGHThen about two and a half years ago the county started the formal procedure of foreclosing on the property. The Planning Department issued enforcement orders on multiple land-use infractions and began levying fines of up to $500 per day. The process by which the government can take possession of private property is made purposely difficult to ensure that the landowner's rights are protected. But it also makes quick action impossible. To reach the point of foreclosure, code enforcers had to build up a sizeable and convincing case against the offenders and prove that they were given every opportunity to comply with the law.By the time the county finally slapped a lien on the property, as much as $250,000 in fines had been assessed. Though the county took possession six months ago, the legal process is still not complete and Bakke has to wait a little longer before sending in a clean-up crew. The lengthy process is time consuming for the county but weighs more heavily on people who live near the junkyard site - people who have to look at the mess on a daily basis, Bakke said.The poor neighbors, he said. This is not a trashy neighborhood. All these good people have had to live with this.To make matters worse, Bakke said people from outside the area have used the property as a dump site, bringing in their own discards and garbage. To help put a stop to the practice the county has now erected a fence and posted a notice that anyone caught on the land will be subject to prosecution.Tougher standThe county's tougher stance on illegal junkyards comes after many years of virtually no enforcement at all. It wasn't until 1997 that the county even employed a land-use enforcement officer. Before that, county laws on junkyards had bark but no bite.For the first time in July of 1999, the county used its existing laws to foreclose on a five-acre parcel north of the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. That site shared many of the same characteristics found on Henni Road. Action against that property owner took nearly five years and more than $300,000 in fines before the county finally got possession. Bakke said the county learned a lot from that incident and noted that, by contrast, the Henni Road process has gone much faster, taking about half the time from the issuance of the first enforcement order to foreclosure. They are absolutely unacceptable, he said about illegal junkyards. The county will not hesitate to foreclose.In addition to seizing property, the county intends to beef up its prosecution of offenders by holding them criminally responsible and, if needed, by filing lawsuits against them in Superior Court. In so doing, violators could face jail time as well as losing their land. In their 2001 budget, the Island County commissioners authorized hiring an additional deputy prosecutor who will specialize in land-use cases. Bakke said that once the eviction hurdle is totally cleared he intends to get the Henni Road land cleaned up as quickly as possible, though he doesn't relish the cost. He admitted that the first bid he received for clean up nearly put me on my knees.Whatever the cost, it will come from taxpayers pockets. In the end, Bakke said the county should be able to recoup the cost when it sells the land. He said the county took the cheap route in cleaning up the property it acquired in 1999 by doing it themselves. Though much has been done, junk still remains there holding up the sale process. For the Henni Road site he plans to go with a professional crew who can get in and out rapidly.I want this property cleaned up now, Bakke said.---------------Junk reportThe Island County Planning Department wants to know about possible illegal junkyards. If you wish to report a violation you must file a complaint form. Forms are available at the department's office in the Courthouse Annex in Coupeville or online at www.islandcounty.net/planning/enforcement.htm. If you have questions regarding potential violations, call 679-7339. "