A packed board room emotionally charged with tears and indignation didn’t sway Grant County, Wash., planned unit development (PUD) commissioners from officially denying lease extensions to some 400 condo and RV owners on Crescent Bar Island, according to the Wentachee World.
The unanimous vote obliges the islanders to remove their property by the time their leases expire in June 2012.
But the islanders, who’ve been lobbying hard for new, long-term leases, say it’s not over yet.
“We don’t think this is over. We’re not going to give up,” said Doug Caton, spokesman for the leaseholders, following the vote. “We look forward to working with the PUD toward a solution that works for everybody.”
Caton, who represents the island’s three homeowners associations, said the groups would meet to plan their next steps.
That could include appealing to a dispute-resolution service within the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency that oversees regulation of this region’s Columbia River hydropower dams.
“Mitigate not litigate” — was a refrain spoken by several of the approximately 100 leaseholders who commented during this week’s board meeting.
Leaseholders made an impassioned appeal to commissioners to delay the vote to give both sides more time to work toward a solution.
But commissioners held firm to their intentions, announced in mid-April, to vote in favor of the islanders’ ouster, citing changing federal regulations that no longer condone private residences on public land.
An April 30 deadline to inform FERC of their decision wouldn’t wait, they said.
The PUD owns Crescent Bar Island as part of the boundary of its federally licensed, Columbia River dams, Priest Rapids and Wanapum.
Commissioners based their ruling on the need to remain on good terms with FERC and protect their dams, which several qualified as “the lifeblood of the county.”
Commissioners said that a March 10 letter from FERC and their own conversations with FERC officials left a clear message that the feds want the people off and the island set aside for public recreation and wildlife protection.
The islanders disagree.
“We’re hearing something different from what you’re hearing,” said condo owner Heather Trautman of Kirkland, about leaseholders’ own conversations with FERC officials.
Jeanne Ramirez, one of fewer than 100 people who live on the island year-round, said angrily that the PUD’s own officials falsely assured them years ago that their leases would be renewed when the utility got its new licence for the dams. The license came in 2008.
“We were led down a path by a lot of people,” Ramirez said. “This is very disturbing. There should at least be some compensation.”
In a Dec. 3, 1998, letter to island leaseholders the PUD’s then board of commissioners wrote, “The District has no plans to alter existing private uses or destroy any development which has ocurred to date in conformity with the District’s leases.”
The letter followed a failed attempt in 1989 for the island’s property developer to petition the FERC to exclude parts of the island from the PUD’s dam boundary to allow more private development.
The letter makes no reference to island land use or plans beyond the June 2012 expiration of the leases.
Others at Monday’s meeting also alleged that false assurances by utility officials and others induced them to buy a island condo, even though they knew the ground lease expired in 2012.
More than 20 leaseholders spoke out at the meeting. Most pointed to family memories of island outings that date back generations, and the potential for many thousands of dollars in lost investments.
“Crescent Bar is cemented in the fabric of our family,” said longtime condo owner Christine Masterson of Renton. Her voice trembled with emotion. “It’s incumbent on you to have the time necessary to make the very best decision.”
Only two people, both Quincy residents, spoke out Monday against extending the island leases.
Bonnie Schroeder and Alex Sibara said they have memories of recreating on the island in the 1970s, before “no trespassing signs and fences” went up around the areas where they used to camp and roam with their families.
“Gentlemen, tear down that fence,” Schroeder told commissioners, inspired, she said, by a similar, Cold War quote by Ronald Regan.
Sibara described his own feeling of unwelcome at Crescent Bar to cries of “Baloney!” and “Untrue” from the crowd.
Gail Motzkus of Quincy said her parents have a home in the RV park and denied that the public has no access on the island.
“They just think they’re not welcome down there because they don’t go down there,” she said.
Condo owner Mike Bostwick of Puyallup said he also felt he’d received “assurances along the way” that the lease on his condo would be renewed.
Bostwick and others expressed disapproval of the “eastie/coastie” animosity expressed by Internet bloggers and Wenatchee World readers in the string of reader comments posted after Crescent Bar articles online.
“I’m saddened to see the animosity on both sides,” he said. “I’ve never had any problem with anyone in the 18 years I’ve been coming here.”
Joe Brunswick of Quincy agreed. “In the Pledge of Allegiance it says, “One nation, indivisible … We should keep that in mind and treat each other as such.”
Commission President Bob Bernd said of some of the posts, “It’s depressing to see what it’s degenerated into in a number of cases.”
Island spokesman Caton, who lives in East Wenatchee but rents out his two island vacation homes, delivered to the commission a petition with signatures of some 76 business owners in Quincy who favored new long-term leases.
Reading from a letter the associations sent to commissioners April 23, Caton said the islanders are working on a plan to meet FERC objectives, increase public access and preserve their homes.
He said that commissioners’ decision to enforce the 2012 deadline, “came as a complete surprise.”
Ultimately, commission members backed FERC’s call for full, public island access.
“We can’t jeopardize our FERC license,” Bernd said. “Our vision for Crescent Bar is that it will be a place for everybody. Family reunions don’t have to happen at privately owned property on public land.”