By Hayley Day
Living on an island doesn’t always mean you have access to a beach.
“I went to the beach in the 70s by boat, but not again for a very long time, even though I liked it very much,” said Richard Ward of Lopez at the Jan. 10 San Juan County Council meeting.
Ward was referring to the public part of a beach on the west side of Lopez Island. The meeting included public discussion about the San Juan County Land Bank’s proposal to purchase land, known as the Clure property, to reach the beach, which currently has no public land access because it’s surrounded by private property.
If the purchase goes through, some nearby homeowners will lose their private beach access and face possible lower property values and increased beach traffic.
“It’s hard to see this happen to our home, what is our biggest accomplishment as a family,” said Larry Bailey, who owns land south of the property, off Meadow and Hemlock Lanes. He shares two easements to the Clure property’s beach with about 10 property owners.
“We didn’t buy waterfront properties and pay waterfront taxes to have our land be turned into public property,” said Bailey to The Journal. Bailey and his neighbors own the beaches, above the high-tide mark, in front of their properties, south of the Clure’s.
Property below the state beach’s high-tide mark of 7.1 feet is public, and property above it is private and belongs to the landowner, according to San Juan County Land Bank Director Lincoln Bormann.
Bormann said purchasing the Clure property would allow the public to park on the land and walk a trail through the woods to the property’s 450-foot-long beach, which would be entirely public thanks to the Land Bank ownership.
Beachcombers could also walk on the public section of the lower part of the private northern properties next to it, until the completely private section at the Sunset Acres development. Signs would distinguish public areas and warn visitors of the danger of walking south of the Clure property, as it has high, unsafe banks, said Bormann. No signs would advertise the preserve from the road, he added.
“Parts of the beach are already open to the public, they already have a right to use it,” said Bormann to The Journal. “It’s a nice beach; it’s beautiful to walk down there.”
Land Bank officials would also like to create a public walking path on the private sections of northern property owner’s beaches, from the Clure property to Sunset Acres. Landowners, who agree to the public trail easement, would be protected in case of visitors’ injuries, said Bormann. Negotiations with the property directly north of the Clure property is underway.
When public beaches are surrounded by private property, access comes by boat on public waters, or trespassing on private property.
“There seems to be a de facto approval to trespass, so Lopezians can get to sandy beaches,” said Judy Osmundson to council. “I’d like children who grow up on an island, to enjoy the beach.”
Yet this beach isn’t sandy, said Bailey to council, but rocky and often covered by tides.
“If this is approved, you will have people upset, thinking they have access to a beach that doesn’t exist,” said Bailey, who represented about eight property owners at the meeting.
He and his homeowner’s association members don’t want to live by an overcrowded beach, which could disturb wildlife, like bald eagles, seals and mussels, despite the Land Bank’s mandate to preserve environmental areas. Bailey also said they can’t view the beach from the south and can’t monitor possible driftwood fires made by visitors.
Bailey told The Journal he and his neighbors hadn’t heard about the purchase until November. The Nov. 18 Land Bank meeting on Lopez had 63 attendees, according to Bormann.
“There has been a lack of involvement with the key stakeholders,” Bailey told council.
Bormann told The Journal, the purchase has been publicly discussed 15 times, between county council and Land Bank meetings since the project was proposed last April by the Lopez Community Trails Network.
According to Bormann, the Land Bank is in negotiations to purchase two parcels on the 10-acre Clure property. The Land Bank will secure the northern parcel’s down payment but asked Lopezians to fund the $50,000 needed for the southern parcel. Funding several large projects, caused Land Bank representatives to request community support for the second time in its history, said Bormann. The funds were raised in three weeks.
Land Bank representatives negotiated the northern parcel to cost $410,000, and the southern parcel, $360,000. Bormann told The Journal both properties were appraised and are at market value.
Land Bank officials will use the organization’s one percent tax on purchased property in the county, as well as state grants they will apply for in 2018. If the grants are not secured, the Land Bank will only purchase the northern parcel and return the $50,000 to donors, said Bormann.
The sale has not closed yet because council and the Land Bank are still listening to public comments on the purchase. The airport also needs to grant access to the property from Shark Reef Road, which it owns, as the other two nearby roads are private.
Land Bank officials are scheduled to present the property’s deeds to council at the Jan. 24 meeting, which is the last step needed by council before finalizing the purchase, said Bormann.
“The Land Bank is concerned about the neighbors’ reactions,” he told The Journal. “This isn’t a sure thing.”