Future of Yacht Club lease foggy

The state of Oak Harbor Yacht Club’s lease for city-owned land remains adrift even after lengthy and sometimes off-course discussion at the Oak Harbor City Council meeting Tuesday night.

Riled members of the Oak Harbor Yacht Club filled the City Council chambers, clogged the hallways of City Hall and even spilled into the city attorney’s office in order to learn about the future of their club building.

The council members were scheduled to decide if a 20-year lease agreement with the Yacht Club passed last month was invalidated because a council member and a staff member appeared to have conflicts of interest when the vote was made. The lease, which is currently at $2,575 a year, is for the city-owned land that the Yacht Club is built on.

But instead of making a decision on the validity of the contract, or reaffirming the vote, a couple of council members took the opportunity to attempt to change the lease. Councilman Larry Eaton said “20 years is just too long” and suggested that the city and club work out a new contract.

“My main concern,” Councilman Paul Brewer said, “is that we’re not even covering the city’s expense for (administering) the lease.”

In the end — after a confusing motion, amendment and amended amendment — the council unanimously voted to work with the Yacht Club to see if some sort of compromise could be worked out on the lease, though they didn’t specify what type of compromise they were looking for. If an amicable deal isn’t possible, the lease is supposed to come back at the next council meeting.

The decision and the confusion surrounding it caused a lot of grumbling among Yacht Club members, some of whom talked about lawsuits and came up with colorful names for the council members as they left the meeting.

But the evening started out with polite debate among Yacht Club members and people who felt the lease should be changed.

John LaFond, former City Council member and former Yacht Club commodore, extolled on the value of the club, which he compared to other service organizations. Of the 240 members, only a third own boats. “It’s no different than any other club in terms of the type of people who belong,” he said.

The top floor of the building, he said, is open to the public — for a fee — and is an important meeting place that was used 89 times last year. Perhaps most importantly, LaFond explained that the club hosts the annual Race Week event, which brings in an estimated $600,000 to the community, not including lodging.

“It’s one of the top 10 major regattas in the world,” he said.

“The Oak Harbor Yacht Club is an important asset to our community,” said Paula Lindemans, vice commodore of the club. She pointed out that the club draws hundreds of boaters to the city and to the marina.

On the other hand, local resident Chuck Niedzialkowski said that the “20-year lease at a fixed price” is too much of a good deal for the club. “I can’t think of any other organization that is allowed such a privilege,” he said.

He pointed out that the Yacht Club already derives great benefits from the city-owned marina. “The marina is forced to make a profit,” he said. “The Yacht club should help out.”

Richard Pasewark, local resident, also argued that the lease payment is too low, especially at a time of budget crunches. He said the city should make some money from the lease of the land, as it makes at the City Beach RV Park. He also said it was unfair that this one group should get so much help from the city.

In addition, both Pasewark and Niedzialkowski were critical of the former council member and the staff member who created the situation through a possible conflict of interest. Niedzialkowski asked whether they would face any fines, but got no answer.

The reason that the council members were re-considering the matter is because Councilman Eric Gerber asked that it be put back on the agenda after the possible conflicts emerged.

Former Councilwoman Nora O’Connell-Balda, whose term expired at the end of 2003, voted in favor of the 20-year lease last December. Harbormaster Dave Williams was also involved in the early stages of putting the new lease agreement together, according to City Attorney Phil Bleyhl, and he spoke in favor of the lease at the December meeting.

It turned out that both O’Connell-Balda and Williams are members of the Yacht Club, but forgot to mention it at the meeting.

Tuesday, Bleyhl said it did appear that the two “officers” did have remote interests, which is a problem that could have been solved if they had simply disclosed it during the meetings.

State law regarding remote interests — RCW 42.23.040 and 42.23.050 — seems to clearly state that the lease contract is void because of the conflicts, but Bleyhl said that case law is not that cut and dried. He said the matter would likely end up in court if the council members tried to unilaterally void or amend the contract.

The property in question, technically called the Catalina Shores Park, is the land next to the marina where the Yacht Club building currently sits. In 1982, the city and the Yacht Club entered into a 20-year contract that allowed the club to build a facility on the city’s land, which had been deeded to the city by the Department of the Interior for a public park facility.

The fee that the Yacht Club pays the city for lease of the land is tailored to cover the cost that the Department of Natural Rescources charges for the tideland lease. It’s currently at $2,575 a year.

Under the old and new agreement, the Yacht Club — a nonprofit organization — has to allow the public to use its facility. The upstairs ballroom at the club, with a scenic view of the water, has became a popular spot for meetings, parties, wedding receptions and the occasional convention.

“It’s widely used by the public and available to them,” LaFond said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611.

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