News

San de Fuca Schoolhouse donated

Coupeville resident Joseph Keeva said he is donating the the historic San de Fuca schoolhouse to the Island County Historical Society in memory of his late wife, Sally Hayton-Keeva.

The gift means generations to come will be able to see the building on the hill overlooking Penn Cove as they drive along Highway 20. Keeva spent thousands of dollars repairing and renovating the 110-year-old structure.

“It’s really appropriate that it should come to the historical society,” said executive director Cindy Gass Johnson. “We are very grateful.”

But the act of generosity, and the circumstances surrounding it, has fueled more than just praise for Keeva in the community.

Some people feel that Keeva, who recently received an award for historic preservation of the schoolhouse, may jeopardize the historic site by subdividing the 10-acre lot into four pieces. He’s sold two of the lots and plans to sell a third.

An elderly woman who sold the schoolhouse to Keeva originally claimed he broke a promise to her by breaking up the property into four pieces. Marguerite Walker was upset with Keeva a couple weeks ago, but now calls him “a hero.”

Others are shocked because Keeva paid the woman $270,000 for a property that is worth more than $1 million just two years later.

Neighbors in San de Fuca are upset because Realtors told them that the school property could not be divided.

And yet another wrinkle in the brouhaha is caused by a little prairie flower. The schoolhouse site is one of the few remaining places where the curtus aster grows. It’s a protected species in the county and has delayed the land sale.

For his part, Keeva claims that he never broke any promises and has nothing but good intentions. He said his only motivation in acquiring the property was to save the schoolhouse from deterioration.

In fact, Keeva said he feels hurt by the accusations.

“There’s a character assassination going on,” he said.

The story of the schoolhouse begins in 1895 when the San de Fuca community built the one-room school building high above Grasser’s Lagoon. Children to grade six attended the school until the 1930s.

In 1963, Marguerite Walker purchased the schoolhouse and 10 acres.

“I just fell in love with it and wanted to preserve it,” said Walker, a Coupeville resident.

Walker allowed many different renters over the years to live in the house, for a nominal fee, in order the keep away vandals and maintain the building.

While there were many people in the community interested in buying the property, Walker held onto it for nearly 40 years. She didn’t trust anybody else to safeguard the historic integrity of the property.

Then she met the Keevas. The couple pleaded with her to sell the school building to them. “They said they wanted very much to redo the school house and restore it,” she said.

Walker and Sally Keeva became friends; Walker trusted her.

In 2003, Walker sold the building and property to the Keevas for $270,000, which she said was “a little below the assessed value.”

Walker claims she knew the property was worth much more, but she sold the property cheap because the Keevas promised to restore the schoolhouse.

Gregor Strohm, an accredited senior appraiser, agrees the assessed value “tends to be much lower” than the real market value.

Also, Walker claims that the Keevas promised not to divide up the land into any more than two other lots, in order to recoup their costs. Walker was very concerned that new houses on the property would detract from the aesthetics and historical importance of the school.

“He promised me, ‘we want to buy this place to preserve it. All I want out of this is my money back,’” Walker said. “That isn’t what’s happening.”

Keeva, however, adamantly denies that he ever made that proise.

“I never said that. Never. Never,” he said.

In fact, Keeva said he was very clear with Walker about his plan to divide the property into four pieces. He points to the deed, which states he can create no more than three additional parcels when it’s divided.

Walker said the language in the deed was added at the last moment and she just threw out the number.

Keeva said he believes the disagreement is really about money. The News-Times has heard from numerous people in the community that Keeva and his Realtor told them that two parcels are selling for about $500,000 total.

Keeva wouldn’t confirm the price. He said it is nobody’s business, but he added that he had no idea the value of land would skyrocket as it has, especially in the San de Fuca area. He said he never listed the properties for sale, but that the buyers approached him.

“I did not buy the school house to make money,” he said. “I bought it because my wife thought we could do something for the community.”

The value of the gift of the schoolhouse, he said, is $300,000.

However the disagreement shakes out, perhaps the important thing is that the school will be preserved.

Rob Harbour with the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve said he hopes to work with Keeva to place a protective easement on the property. One of the goals, he said, is to protect the public’s view of the schoolhouse when traveling north of Highway 20 around Penn Cove.

Steve Erickson of Whidbey Environmental Action Network said he’s flagged a few dozen rare curtus aster on the schoolhouse property. The species is listed as “a protected species” by the county, “a sensitive species” by the state and “a species of concern” by the federal government.

Erickson said the schoolhouse sits on a rare kind of dry prairie which was once managed by Native Americans, who burned off the larger brush. The hillside is being invaded by snowberry that is crowding out the prairie plants.

The piece of prairie needs a management plan, he said.

Still, Erickson said the flower probably won’t affect development of the land as long as the new houses are built on the hill above the prairie land.

Keeva said he’s in the process of getting a biological and an archeological assessment of the site.

Johnson said the Island County Historical Society’s board of trustee has not officially accepted the gift of the schoolhouse, but she’s confident it will happen soon.

She said the society will use the building for educational tours, student tours, facility rentals for weddings and other events, and as an interpretive center. She hopes that the facility, with the money made from the uses, will maintain itself.

In addition, both Walker and Johnson want to see an endowment fund started for the historic building.

“I want it to remain an important landmark here for the next generations,” Walker said.

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