Beach access ruling expected soon in Wonn Road dispute

A judge in Skagit County Superior Court is expected to make a key ruling in the near future about the future of a disputed beach access in Greenbank.

Bruce Montgomery listens to attorneys in Skagit County Superior Court. In the foreground are Marianne Edain and Steve Erickson

A judge in Skagit County Superior Court is expected to make a key ruling in the near future about the future of a disputed beach access in Greenbank.

Attorneys representing Island County, advocacy group Island Beach Access, Greenbank residents Bruce and Joanne Montgomery, and neighbors of the Montgomerys argued at length over motions before the court last Thursday.

The county and Island Beach Access attorneys are asking the judge to approve summary judgment motions and find that the disputed property at the end of Wonn Road is public.

Attorneys for the Montgomerys and neighboring property owners oppose the motions and want to go to trial, which is set for October. They also argued that Island Beach Access does not have standing and shouldn’t be allowed to participate in litigation.

On Thursday, Island County Chief Civil Prosecutor Dan Mitchell and Prosecutor Greg Banks pointed out that the underlying reason there can be a dispute over beach property is because of an unfortunate decision by state leaders in the early 20th century to sell off tidelands to private interests.

The 40-foot beach access in Greenbank represents a “crumb” left over for the public.

“And like the Grinch in the Dr. Seuss book, they want the crumb,” Banks said.

Opposing attorneys, however, argued that the record is far from clear and the trial is likely to become “a war of experts.” Tom Seguine, the attorney representing the neighbors, repeatedly argued that the lawsuit had become a political dispute in Island County.

“This has truly become a political issue and they’re trying to bring politics into the courtroom,” he said.

Attorneys on the other side said it’s simply about preserving public beach access.

“The reason I’ve become so engrossed in the case and so invested in this case,” said Steve Todd, a volunteer attorney for Island Beach Access, “is because what’s going on here is against the law and the court needs to put a stop to it, to tell the Montgomerys to tear down the wall.”

The fracas began in 2008 when residents Joanne and Alan Montgomery built a low wall adjacent to their home at the end of Wonn Road, blocking public beach access; they claimed its location was on their property. The county sued in March of 2013 to remove the wall.

Earlier this year the Montgomerys agreed to a complex settlement offer proposed by the county during lengthy negotiations, apparently approved by two of the three commissioners.

But then Commissioner Rick Hannold changed his mind and scuttled the deal after hearing arguments against it from fellow Commissioner Helen Price Johnson and a crowd of residents.

As a result, the ownership of the small piece of property will be determined in court, with an appeal likely whoever wins.

At the heart of the county’s argument is a 1944 plat by property owner W. James Pratt. Under the plat, Wonn Road was given to the county.

“From the day that plat was recorded, no one had any authority to interfere with the public’s right to the beach,” Mitchell said.

Aaron Laing, attorney for the Montgomerys, argued that the plat was ambiguous and that a 1955 easement by Pratt shows that his intention was not to convey the tidelands to the county.

The easement provided property owners with a 20-foot easement on the disputed property.

“There are historical issues of fact that cannot be resolved in summary judgment,” he said.

Laing said the county knew about the dispute over the property for many years and did nothing.

“The county sits on its hands for 40 years and everyone with information about the case has passed away,” he said.

 

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