County Commishes Repeal Fee-for-Access: ‘The Saga Continues…’

County CommissionOkay everybody. Breathe. Got that? Good.

Now then. Told you I’d provide more details on this afternoon’s public hearing/special meeting related to  repealing portions of Ordinance 412 and not duking it out in court with “Big Timber.” Well, here it is. Note: You may want to grab some milk and cookies and a blankie. Cuz this is ramping into a bedtime story that’d make Rip van Winkle proud. (I like tiramisu. Or chocolate chip.)

Grays Harbor County Commissioner and Chair Vickie Raines formally convened the meeting just after 2:00. She said the purpose of the meeting was to consider repealing a portion of Ordinance 412 and take public comment on the matter.

Oh, baby.

Negative rumblings bubbled up right out of the chute regarding the two minute speaking limit. Outdoor activist Dan Boeholt referenced a “conditional agreement” the commishes allegedly had in place with “Big Timber.” He and others wanted to know “What the deals are” regarding the lawsuit the county’s facing down with these dear timber peeps.

Commissioner Raines said she’d get an answer but wanted to confer with County Prosecutor Katie Svoboda. Some sabers started rattling in the audience. Raines said she planned to be respectful to all in attendance and that she’d appreciate reciprocal behavior on the part of the audience. “This is a very difficult decision to make,” she said. “That’s why we wanted input from all of you.”

Financial considerations played a major role in the decision-making process. Raines said the county could go to court on whether the portion of the ordinance prohibiting access fees was legal or not, and pay attorney’s fees of about $30K “to this point.” The “Big Timber” companies like Weyerhaeuser also requested that the county pay all of their lawyer’s fees – to the tune of about $70K at present.

Maybe Shakespeare was right?

Tiramisu

Raines also said a “change of heart” by one commissioner “who decided we needed to rethink the process” precipitated the possible ordinance repeal. She stopped short of naming names.  She emphasized that nothing has been agreed upon or signed.

Someone said it was hard to comment on what’s available moving forward if they don’t know what options are on the table. Raines replied that the point of a public comment period is to allow the public to speak first, followed by action/discussion from the commissioners.

Commentarial demeanor (new word I just made up) ran the gamut from frothing at the mouth, threatening and nasty to calm, respectful, and conciliatory. The vast majority of input was against repealing the fee-for-access prohibition portion of the ordinance.

Boeholt asked from the floor if a confidentiality agreement will allow Timber to attack him and (County Commissioner) Wes (Cormier) “when this is all through.” Not exactly sure what he was getting at. You’ll have to ask Dan.

Public domain
Public domain

Boeholt was one of the first to speak at the podium during the public comment period. He was clearly not happy with Commissioner Frank Gordon. Boeholt accused Gordon of “back-stabbing” Commissioner Raines and “undermining Wes.” He said Gordon told him he was going to “hang with me on this ordinance. Today you’re hanging yourself.” Boeholt concluded, “I’m just livid over this, as you can tell.” The room erupted in applause.

Citizen after citizen spoke. Concerns included B.T. taking over the woods, access fees being such that “only the very rich will be able to afford to go out there,” abuse of timber property, problems with damage and dumped trash, and a lack of opportunity for families to connect in and enjoy the Great Outdoors. “Greg” lamented how the current generation is “buried in technology.” An Olympia resident who grew up in Grays Harbor, he spoke about opportunities for families to participate in activities in the woods and how financial restraints like access fees can make that increasingly difficult.

“Disappointed”

Another fella said he was “disappointed” in Raines and Gordon, calling Gordon a “flipper.” Sir Sweetheart blustered that Raines “better change her mind in the next 20 minutes or so” or he’d make sure she gets un-elected when her seat comes up for re-election.

Ah, true love.

Several speakers said they fully support the original ordinance. Others noted that if B.T. is allowed to impose fee-for-access again, hunters and others will simply take their consumer dollars elsewhere – Idaho or Montana – where they can re-create for free.

Stick To Our Guns, Stand Up

Others said the county should “stick to our guns, leave forest lands alone and let the people enjoy it.” Additional comments included “I’d appreciate it if you folks would try to negotiate something for us at a reasonable price.”

Jason Tole said “we’re setting precedents here for the future. There’s kind of a lead by example here… If you guys back-bone up on this and stand up to Big Timber, the other counties will follow through.”

Some asked why Big Timber “is picking on us”? A man who moved here to enjoy the rural outdoors with his son told the commissioners, “You seem to be acting out of fear. You don’t seem to be representing us, the people in your area.” Others talked about a loss of their usual hunting and fishing grounds.

There were also lots of “I hadn’t planned on speaking, but….” Many long-time county residents as well as relative newcomers packed the room.

In case you need another sugar boost...
In case you need another sugar boost…

Different Tacts

One guy took a different tact. He asked, “Where’s the other side of this? Who’s speaking here today representing the other side? Why is everyone sitting here saying the same thing?”

Hoquiam resident John Straka said he didn’t like “this venue for pursuing this.” He said, “It’s going to come down to the every day taxpayer who’ll have to foot the bill for the lawsuit.” He said he “doesn’t see any easy win for the county” and suggested that “going back to the state legislature to modify this is a better route.”

Longtime Harborite Deb Blake of Harbor Rescue spoke about how difficult it is to access the woods to do SAR (Search & Rescue) training. “Other counties are waiting to see what we do” she said. “It doesn’t hurt us to be a leader. Let’s fight to keep our rights for our families.”

Augmented Comments, Cormier Praised

Chairwoman Raines called a brief recess around 3:00 p.m. A few speakers returned to the podium after the meeting re-convened, augmenting their initial comments during the three o-clock hour. Raines sought to accommodate everyone wishing to hold forth on the subject at hand.

Kathy Pacana, owner of Clark’s restaurant in Artic, praised Commissioner Cormier. She said she was “really impressed that Wes Cormier had the guts to do this, … being the only one to jump in and represent people.” Pacana admonished the other commishes, “Don’t chicken out on this game of chicken they’re playing.”

A representative from “the outdoor industry” said hunters and fishermen pour lots of money into local economies. He said they keep hotels and restaurants and Clark’s in business and those businesses in turn provide revenue for the county in the form of taxes. Another man concurred. He said, “If they want me to pay $300 for access, I’m just going to take my $ to Idaho or Montana. If hunters aren’t here patronizing local businesses, we lose their (businesses) tax dollars, too.”

Pies

Others spoke about vandalized property and the “tremendous amount of damage on public land.” Some likened a court battle with B.T. to the lawsuit Superior Court judges brought against the county in 2011 over budget cuts. They haven’t forgotten what that little clam bake cost taxpayers.

Commissioner Discussion and Action

“Last call” Raines said at about 3:18. She closed the public hearing portion of the meeting at about 3:19 p.m. Commissioner Frank Gordon immediately moved to repeal the portion of the ordinance as outlined. Raines seconded.

Then Commissioner Cormier read a statement. See the full text here.

The commissioners discussed the motion. Gordon said Cormier’s statement was “well said,” but that he’s contacted other officials and has not received any help from any of them. He also said sportsmen’s clubs claim to have money available to help with legal and other expenses, but the commission hasn’t seen a penny. (Shouted responses included “You never asked.”)

A 50/50 Chance

Gordon noted that a “skillful attorney” pegged the county’s chances of prevailing in court at “a 50/50 chance.” “How about jumping on the state legislature?” he asked. Gordon said he hasn’t seen any state legislator standing up to Weyerhaeuser, “including our local legislators.”

Gordon continued, “I don’t think we can afford it” (a court battle). “My heart is with you completely, but I was voted in to watch over our money the best we (sic) could.” He added, “If you want to kick me out in November, go for it.”

Raines said she wasn’t on the commission when the original ordinance went into effect, but that she appreciates the issue. Raines said the commission has a fiduciary responsibility “to all citizens of the county. Litigation is expensive and it involves risk.” She echoed Gordon’s comment that the county had a 50/50 chance at a win and that lawyers aren’t confident in the county’s half of that equation.

Lack of Support at State Level

Frustration with a lack of support at the state level was evident. Raines said she spoke with Senators Jim Hargrove and Tim Sheldon and Rep. Brian Blake on the issue last week. She said the matter didn’t get seconded at the state level. “So what does that tell you?” she asked rhetorically.

Capitol 1

“I believe this is a state-wide issue” said Raines. “It cannot be the burden of Grays Harbor to carry the water for everyone. We don’t have the resources to fight this fight.”

She also said that at this point, she hasn’t seen any letters of support from the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, other special interests or other counties. She urged people to engage with the state legislature. “As we move forward with this… it isn’t over… give it to your state legislators and Governor Inslee. See if they’re willing to take a stand” regarding the legalities of the prohibition on fee-for-access. She said, “This belongs to the state. They need to fix the problem.”

“Political Considerations”

Raines also talked about “political considerations” being a factor in the move to repeal and avoid a legal fight. She said she wasn’t going to point any fingers or take a huge gamble with taxpayer’s dollars. Raines also said Grays Harbor can’t afford to do it solo. reiterating that the lack of support at the state level was “very, very frustrating.”

Raines said she “certainly didn’t” roll over for the timber companies, emphasizing that she “wants to do the right thing” for all the county’s taxpayers. Raines added that she’s “not standing with or against any commissioner on this bench.” She said she’s “standing on her own.”

Raines then called for a vote on the motion to repeal. It passed on a 2 to 1 vote, with Raines and Gordon voting to repeal and avoid a court battle. Commish Cornier voted Nay.

You gonna eat that last bite of tiramisu?

 

Advertisements