Greenbank beach battle goes to court

Vern Olsen, with the accordion, leads a singalong during the Save Our Beaches picnic in Greenbank Saturday.  - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Vern Olsen, with the accordion, leads a singalong during the Save Our Beaches picnic in Greenbank Saturday.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

An offer of an unspecified amount of cash to buy beach property didn't dissuade Island County commissioners from pursuing legal action over the ownership of a small piece of tidelands.

About 50 people attended the commissioners' meeting Monday afternoon to show their support for Save Our Beaches, an informal group that is working to preserve public beach access at the end of Wonn Road in Greenbank. Many in the crowd were energized by the group's picnic at the contested site Saturday.

Bruce Montgomery, who contends he owns the tidelands in question, also attended the meeting and made an unusual offer.

"I would rather spend my money helping the county secure a piece of beach that is useable than paying lawyers, and I am willing to contribute significant amount of money and help fund raise to secure beach access for my fellow citizens," he said. "However, I will not likely be as generous if I have spent my money fighting a lawsuit."

Montgomery pointed out that the records are murky and that "98 years of taxpaying private ownership" of the beach complicates the case.

But others at the meeting weren't so keen on Montgomery's proposal. Glen Russell, the spokesman for Save Our Beaches, pointed out that the so-called Greenbank Landing public access was the site of a wharf and center of the Greenbank community 100 year ago.

"The Greenbank public access is an irreplaceable community treasure," he said. "Historically and culturally it is our Plymouth Rock, the landing from which our community grew."

Russell presented the commissioners with a petition, signed by 1,181 people, asking them to "do what needs to be done to secure, protect and defend the Greenbank Landing public access."

In response to a question from Commissioner John Dean, Assistant County Engineer Randy Brackett said he didn't know of any low-bank beachfront property that the county could procure, as Montgomery suggested.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the commissioners were legally obligated to pursue ownership of the property because state law prohibits the vacation of roads abutting bodies of water.

"I think it's been allowed to fester long enough," she said, adding that she believes the county will prevail and "be able to assert public access."

In the end, commissioners unanimously passed a resolution directing the Island County prosecutor, with assistance from the public works director, to bring legal action "to confirm and restore the county's and public's Wonn Road access to the beach, tidelands and waters of Saratoga Passage."

The resolution states that the owners of the 1944 plat of Greenbank Beach dedicated Wonn Road east from North Bluff Road "for the use of the public forever to a line describes on the plat as the shoreline."

On Saturday, about 75 people showed up for the Save the Beach picnic next to the site, but they didn't walk past the wall Montgomery erected to keep folks off the beach. It was a lively event. There was an Easter egg hunt and a man dressed in a somewhat-eerie bunny outfit. Greenbank resident Vern Olsen played accordion and led a sing-along. He even wrote a song for the occasion based on a spiritual.

"We want access to our beach, Greenbank beach," he sang. "And they shouldn't build a wall to deny access to us all."

Russell gave many small educational tours of the site from the road, which people decorated with flowers. Island County Sheriff Mark Brown stood by to make sure the event was peaceful and kept people off the disputed property.

"I did some research and currently Mr. Montgomery has title," he said. "Whether that will change, time will tell."

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