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Island County commissioners refuse settlement in Wonn Road beach access lawsuit

Marshall Goldberg, holding a sign, is one of many residents who opposed a settlement of a dispute over beach access during a hearing before the Island County commissioners today. - Photo by Dan Richman/Whidbey News-Times
Marshall Goldberg, holding a sign, is one of many residents who opposed a settlement of a dispute over beach access during a hearing before the Island County commissioners today.
— image credit: Photo by Dan Richman/Whidbey News-Times

A judge will determine whether a Greenbank couple had the right to build a stone wall across a historic public beach access, following a cliffhanger today at the Island County Board of Commissioners' meeting.

After 2.5 hours of vigorous discussion and public comment that verged on unruly, Commissioner Jill Johnson moved to accept the couple's offer to settle litigation the county brought to remove the wall. The offer would have ended the lawsuit but — in the view of some in the overflow crowd — would have set a bad precedent and would not have ensured the return to the county of beach access at the eastern end of Wonn Road in Greenbank.

Commissioner Rick Hannold, who until the last possible second favored settling, cited documents he had discovered in the past 24 hours and hesitantly declined to second Johnson's motion. That killed the settlement offer. The room erupted with shouts and applause as the crowd rose to its feet.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson has opposed the settlement offer throughout. After the meeting, Hannold declined to say more about the documents he had discovered.

"The people of Whidbey have spoken, prompting one more of the county commissioners to come to his senses," said Island Beach Access, a party to the suit, in a prepared statement as the meeting ended. "Now we can roll up our sleeves and get to work taking this through the legal process."

Added Art Huffine of Oak Harbor, "I want to thank Rick Hannold from the bottom of my heart for his courage in changing his mind."

Now the county will continue to pursue the litigation, launched in 2013, in Skagit County Superior Court. There is always the chance a judge could decide against the county in favor of Joanne and Bruce Montgomery, the couple who erected the wall in 2008, Commissioners Hannold and Johnson emphasized. But during more than 30 two-minute comments, the crowd overwhelmingly said it wanted to take that chance, as did Price Johnson.

As the comment period began, some people spoke out of turn, and one approached the commissioners' dais, in violation of protocol. The commissioners called for a five-minute break. When proceedings continued, a uniformed sheriff's deputy was standing beside the dais.

Under the sweetened settlement offer released last week -- and now rejected -- the Montgomerys would have lost the right to force the county to accept one of four other waterfront properties instead of the Wonn Road access. In most other respects, that new offer was identical to one made early in the month. It would have returned the Wonn Road access, on which the stone wall is built, within 10 years or when the latter of the Montgomerys died, whichever comes later. The wall could then have been removed.

The county would still have gotten an additional west-side piece of beachfront property and $50,000. The Montgomerys would still have had the right for 10 years to propose alternative beach access sites, though whether to accept those proposals would have rested entirely with the board. The county would still have been forbidden to help anyone, in any way, with claims against the Montgomerys. That prohibition specifically applies to Island Beach Access.

Some commenters yesterday pointed to several possible problems with even the sweeter offer. The "future vesting deed" that the Montgomerys would have signed, giving back the beach access after their deaths or 10 years, is "a very questionable instrument," said Marianne Edain, a member of Island Beach Access. "Our attorneys have no confidence it will result in an actual return of the property."

As of mid-day Tuesday, 1,070 people had electronically signed an online petition opposing any settlement and favoring pursuing the county's lawsuit against the Montgomerys. South-end resident Jessica Leon created the petition only Saturday, she said.

"Despite the revision to the offer," the petition reads, "this is still a precedent we do not wish to see established on this island: that anyone can block public lands as they wish for personal gain at the expense of all, and then hold the county hostage to that decision for their lifetime!"

Some signers added comments.

"Giving in to the bullying Montgomerys sets a bad precedent," wrote Gary Piazzaon of Coupeville. "It amazes me that someone with money can get away with things like this," wrote Bruce Wright of Clinton. "Please do not set a precedent for this kind of behavior in Island County," urged John Lawson of Langley.

A separate, hard-copy petition posted at the Greenbank Store had garnered about 150 signatures by Monday, said Wilson Binger, a member of the legal team for Island Beach Access.

Helen Price Johnson, who opposed the earlier settlement, in an email to constituents earlier this week stated her objections to the more recent offer. She said it violates state law, restricts First Amendment rights and exposes the county to future litigation.

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