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Rumors of settlement offer swirl around Wonn Road dispute
Nearly one year after Island County filed a civil lawsuit against a Greenbank property owner over a wall constructed at the end of Wonn Road, a settlement offer may be on the table.
Rumors have swirled in recent weeks that Bruce Montgomery, the homeowner at the center of the property dispute, has offered the county $100,000 to end legal proceedings. He declined to discuss any current settlement offer in an interview Thursday, but Montgomery did say that’s the amount he believes it will cost him to continue duking it out in court with county lawyers, and that he’d rather the money be spent on another property for public use.
“To me that’s a win-win,” Montgomery said. “If I can settle for the amount I would spend on legal fees … I would be happy to settle this case.”
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks declined to discuss or even confirm the existence of a settlement offer, as the case remains under litigation.
Attorneys for Island Beach Access, an advocacy group composed of Whidbey residents that filed as interveners with the county in the lawsuit against Montgomery, also remained mum on the topic. They did, however, confirm that no such offer was extended to the Whidbey Island-based group.
“He [Montgomery] has not called us or discussed it with us at all,” said Claudia Newman, of the Seattle-based law firm Bricklin & Newman, LLP.
The squabble over Wonn Road began in 2008 when Montgomery, a pharmaceutical magnate, built a rock wall at the end of Wonn Road. The road end is adjacent to his home and forms the beginning of his driveway.
Montgomery claims the wall was constructed to keep people from driving on his drain field, which is located in the grassy area between the end of Wonn Road and the beach and shoreline.
Longtime Greenbank residents and other beach access proponents raised the alarm, claiming the beach and tidelands were public property. In 2009, the Island County Commissioners agreed with that position and agreed to challenge the claim and do whatever it takes to reclaim and preserve the former beach access.
The promise languished on the shelf until March 6, 2013, when county officials announced the research needed for an effective case was complete and filed suit. Now, almost one year later, Montgomery maintains he is “very comfortable” with his legal position.
Banks is equally comfortable with the county’s position. They contend the wall intrudes on public property and, if they are successful, the public will have access to the water but only to the mean high-water mark.
“Beyond that, I’m not going to say what people can or can’t do,” Banks said.
As interveners, however, Island Beach Access is party to the lawsuit and it argues that the public owns the tidelands.
“There is no ambiguity, it’s clear; the public has access to the tidelands,” Newman said.
Mike McVay, president of the advocacy group, also promised to continue the fight until they regain the property he claims rightfully belongs to the public.
“We see that as Greenbank’s, Whidbey’s heritage and we don’t see giving it away to some rich guy because the county can’t fight that battle,” McVay said.
He also called Montgomery’s $100,000 offer “laughable.”
“That’s an absurd amount,” McVay said. “I mean, where do you find beachfront property for that anymore?”
While Montgomery has stood largely alone against the county and Island Beach Access, his solo fight is about to end.
“The beach itself is not exclusively owned by yours truly,” he said.
He claims some of the waterfront in question belongs to a total of 30 property owners in the area known as Greenbank Tract 1. At least nine, he said, have agreed to join the lawsuit as interveners on his side.
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, a member of the board that first agreed to move forward with the lawsuit, said she remains resolute in reclaiming the property.
Public beach access should not be denied by private property owners, said Price Johnson, and her decision years ago was a line drawn in the sand.
“It’s a policy statement,” she said.