Sect hit with moratorium

Whidbey New-Times, Washington/January 20, 2007
By Paul Boring

After more than a year of non-compliance, a religious group looking to build a facility off of Crescent Harbor Road will have to wait three years to apply for permits as a result of unmitigated wetland violations.

Island County Hearing Examiner Michael Bobbink approved a three-year development moratorium on Thursday in Coupeville for property owned by Mayrine and Larry Beckett, who are affiliated with the nonprofit corporation Selestial Initiates Exonerare (SIE) and the Eckankar religion. Dan Tankersley, representing the SIE Church, drove up from California to be present at the hearing.

The group has proposed building on the five-acre parcel a guest cottage and single-family residence in addition to a "family spiritual exercise and picnic area," herbal garden, pasture, orchard and lawn.

Matt Kukuk, Island County Planning and Community Development shorelines and enforcement planner, said wetland boundary disputes with the owners' hired biologist had thus far been irreconcilable.

"We'd like to move forward and get this resolved," he said.

Planning Director Phil Bakke said, given the refusal of the appellants to restore the damaged wetland and operate in good faith, he recommended imposing the three-year moratorium. He added that representatives from the Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had offered to get involved with the case. The latter group felt that the owners' conduct could constitute a violation of federal law.

"They've agreed to join us on the site visits there," he said.

Bakke said that he had not seen any effort by the appellants to resolve the problem. An obviously perturbed Tankersley approached the podium when Bobbink asked him to return to his seat and wait his turn. After slamming his clipboard on the table, he apologized to Bobbink under duress from the hearing examiner.

Bobbink called Tankersley to the podium, requesting that he behave himself. The appellant said the Wetland Delineation Manual, a publication he referred to numerous times during his testimony, specified that mid-April was the beginning of the growing season. He maintained that the property's soil had been studied for one full growing season.

Wetlands existence questioned

"There is no hydrology and that is the evidence that we're standing on," Tankersley said, adding that evidentiary data must be compiled during the growing season, not in December. "If we went to the Wal-Mart parking lot, there would have been water in the parking lot."

Bobbink said that maps prepared by two independent biologists hired by SIE both showed regulated wetland areas on the property.

Bobbink added that at a previous hearing Tankersley admitted to having regulated wetlands on the property and appeared on Thursday to be contradicting previous testimony given under oath.

"You admitted at the first hearing that there was a wetland and you disturbed it ..." Bobbink said. "We agreed to try and work on this and try to get you situated, so you could restore what you needed to but not more than you had to. That was over a year ago."

Tankersley replied the county staff could not even agree on the wetland boundary, which precluded any restoration efforts on his part.

"Now this wetland has been expanded to who knows what," he said facetiously. "Nobody could agree where that wetland was."

The county officials and the hearing examiner pointed out that SIE did not even agree with their own biologists' findings.

In fact, the group has gone through more than one specialist. At the Dec. 7 hearing, it was disclosed that SIE sued their biologist, Rupert Schmidt, presumably because his professional findings regarding the wetland were in conflict with SIE's wishes.

Tankersley claimed that proper notice of the existence of wetlands was not given upon purchase of the property, possibly a tactic to discriminate against California transplants.

"I think it's a crime," Tankersley said. "I think it's an absolute discriminative crime that the people of California moving here don't have the simple notice that's required by due process for these properties to be mapped as required by state law and to be given notice that there may be wetlands on it.

"This delineation manual requires that that has to be tested during the growing season. Why are we here in December? I think it's just an exercise to help me spend money. And I will take action against it. I am very frustrated, Mr. Bobbink."

The hearing examiner asked Kukuk if there was a widely accepted time frame for a growing season. The planner said the issue has been debated in the scientific community, but mid-February has been accepted for Whidbey Island. Bobbink said he would be satisfied with mid-March. Tankersley, however, was not satisfied with either date, stating that mid-April is the beginning of the season.

"You've decided that you are the expert and nobody else can determine what the growing season is," Bobbink said to Tankersley. "You've decided that you know how to interpret the manual and nobody else can interpret it. You don't let the professionals do their work. You just disagree with them. What am I supposed to do with you?"

Tankersley admitted it was his biologist, not the manual, that placed the growing season's starting date at mid-April. The manual's definition did not specify a month, the hearing examiner pointed out.

Hearing examiner fines church

Clearly fed up with the continual runaround, Bobbink imposed the moratorium, admonishing the property owners.

"There is absolutely no doubt that there was a wetland violation and the code requires a wetland reproach that is approved by staff and the hearing examiner," he said. "And it requires that there be no permits issued on the property until three years after the restoration has been completed."

If a restoration plan proposed by the appellants is not approved, they can appeal the decision.

"If you were cooperative, which you were not, you could have had a permit to start your work by summer," Bobbink said, continuing that he would support Bakke's imposition of civil penalties as directed in the initial enforcement order issued more than a year ago. The penalties include an initial $5,000 penalty and a daily civil penalty of $500.

The county and the Department of Natural Resources each filed stop-work orders, both of which SIE appealed.

The state, like the county, found the group in violation and dismissed the appeal in November of 2005.

Wendy Cramer, whose property abuts the SIE plat, believes she has been personally affected by the wetland violations.

"My property has been flooded because of the wetland destruction," she said. "I've had green, slimy water all over my property. These people are human bulldozers."

The property is reportedly 75 percent wetland areas, including the buffers.

Cramer said the owners have filled the wetlands and buried vegetation to make it appear the protected areas are broken up and therefore exempt from regulations.

Cramer rallied friends and community members in the wake of the wetland disturbances. Barbara Grim said she witnessed the destruction and has personally observed the change in wildlife on the property.

'They have raped the land'

"They have raped the land," she said. "It's a beautiful place we live in. Let's keep it beautiful."

Marianne Edain and Steve Erickson of Whidbey Island Environmental Action Network attended the hearing, pledging their support for Cramer and voicing their disapproval of the appellants' conduct. Edain said she hoped the Department of Ecology and the Corps of Engineers would step in.

Edain was flummoxed by the property owners' behavior. She said that a social contract governs most of society. The contract, however, is not recognized by the appellants.

"These people are from the other side of the moon," she said. "This is a fascinating situation. There are certain rules of behavior we all agree on . . . and these people have decided that they're not a part of that. How does a community as a whole deal with somebody who declares openly they're not a part of that social contract?"

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