MONTESANO — The city of Montesano granted the initial permits this month for a proposed riverfront RV park to move forward along the Chehalis River. The approval comes as questions emerge over the process the city took in selling the property two years ago.
Plans are in the works to start construction of the project this summer, although developer Paul Schankel of West Pro Designs says the state Department of Ecology has since put a hold on the project because of continued questions about the impact the project could have on wetlands at the site. Schankel says Ecology has mandated the city conduct a public hearing on the matter before its hearings examiner. A hearing has not yet been set.
Montesano’s Community Development Director Mike Wincewicz issued conditional approval for the first phase of the development on May 8, listing it as a project of “public interest” that outweighs the potential impact on wetlands. That said, the permit approval does require that the state Department of Ecology sign off on the project — and Schankel says Ecology officials do not yet feel comfortable enough to grant the project approval.
In 2012, the city sold 47 acres of property along the Chehalis River to Paul Willis for a proposed RV park. Willis had already owned the old Bowers Construction building on a quarter-acre of property nearby. Schankel’s firm works for Willis.
Wincewicz says the property included about 5.35 acres of “buildable” land. The challenge has been figuring out just where exactly the wetlands begin and end on the property, Schankel says.
“The plan is to start work this summer,” Schankel says. “We just need to get through the public hearing, the hearings examiner and get Ecology to approve the project.”
The project has an address at 71 Highway 109 in Montesano.
The Vidette reviewed records of the sale and documents leading up to the sale.
In January of 2012, Wincewicz first approached council members about declaring the land as “surplus” and looking for buyers. By February, the council declared the property surplus.
Following an executive session in March of 2012, the Montesano City Council approved selling the land to Woods at Sylvia Creek LLC, owned by Willis, for $23,000. Sylvia Creek owns other land around the old city property.
There was just one other bid for the property from Bies Buck Farms for $21,522, who wanted to purchase it “pending a feasibility study,” according to a note submitted to the city four days before the bids were opened. Estes said the farm is co-owned by the husband of a city employee, who wanted to duck hunt on the east side of the property. As it happens, Schankel is also married to a city employee. That means everyone who bid on the property was in some way connected to city employees.
When a constituent questioned the sale process, Estes wrote to him on April 10, 2012, saying “Formal notices are done to citizens of the community via posting on the subject property and legal advertising in the newspaper of record, the Montesano Vidette.”
However, despite two public records requests done since the sale took place, The Vidette has been unable to confirm that any advertising of the land sale actually took place.
The city has been unable to produce an affidavit that proves a legal ad was taken out. There is no record in The Vidette that any legal ad was actually done. There were no listings in real estate websites or real estate publications.
Estes says a posting on the property was done to advertise the sale. However, there are no records proving this actually happened. The Vidette twice requested pictures of the posting and nothing was found in the files. And Estes admits he never actually went down to the site to see that it happened, although he heard at least one person saw the posting.
The city doesn’t seem to have broken any of its internal rules.
When the City Council declared the land surplus, it triggered a sale process approved in 2005, requiring the city to place signs on the property large enough for the public to see, which might have happened, and to invite the public to make bids on the property.
The 2005 resolution also says the city could hire an appraiser to figure out the value of the property; but that was never done in this case. It was optional.
There was no legal requirement to get a real estate agent, advertise the property on a real estate website — or even put in a legal advertisement in a local newspaper.
The city has had stricter rules to sell an old ambulance or an old paint sprayer, two recent city-owned pieces of equipment which were both advertised in The Vidette’s legals.
The city had the option to do more marketing, but chose not to. The 2012 resolution authorizing the sale of the waterfront property notes the “city’s administration shall take such actions as it deems may most effectively market the property….” The decision was made to just do the minimum required under the law. Essentially, to sell a piece of land, all the city is legally required to do is post a sign that says, “For sale by owner” and wait for people to notice it. In this case, the bid opening took place 28 days after the council approved that the sale occur. As a comparison, it’s taken more than a year for the city to sell and get a good deal on its two former public works buildings.
“I just had no idea,” Estes said. “This is all so new to me. I hadn’t heard this before.”
When the sale was approved in March of 2012, the City Council put a number of conditions on the sale.
For one thing, the developer was to provide paved public parking and a public walkway along the river. The developer was also to guarantee river access to the site — and present complete plans for the use of the property within six months of the sale.
The Vidette has found, through public records requests with the city and County Auditor’s Office, where deeds are recorded; that none of those conditions were recorded with the actual sale.
The only thing on file with the county is the statutory warranty deed, signed by Mayor Estes. None of the conditions were attached.
There is one line on the deed stating the sale is “subject to covenants, conditions, restrictions, reservations, easements and agreements of record, if any.”
But the city does not have any record of the conditions even in its own files that would be part of the sale. As a comparison, in recent sales involving the city’s public works buildings, conditions were set ranging from environmental remediation issues to mandating the city remove furniture from buildings. Those conditions were actually written into the sale documents. Nothing like that exists to secure public access to the waterfront.
Willis, in his original bid for the sale, voluntarily agreed to provide paved access throughout the developed site and paved parking at the east end of the project — but there was nothing in the bid about a walkway or that plans be submitted within six months.
Schankel says it’s important to both him and Willis to continue to allow waterfront access to the public. That’s why they’ve proposed plans with those contents.
Even the meeting minutes for the March 2012 council meeting do not describe the specific conditions behind the sale, only noting the sale was approved “with conditions to have plans within six months.”
In September of 2012, Schankel came to the City Council and presented a rough sketch of what the waterfront development could look like.
“The river is cut and dry but establishing the boundaries of the wetlands is going to be challenging,” Schankel told the council at the time in audio reviewed by The Vidette.
During that meeting, Councilman Chris Hutchings questioned Schankel on whether they would construct a boardwalk or a walkway along the riverfront and Schankel said those ideas were still in the early phase.
They had hoped to get construction started by spring of 2013, but the wetland delineation process with the state Department of Ecology has gone on much longer than expected.
Did the meeting between Schankel and the City Council in September of 2012 meet the criteria for plans to be presented within six months? Wincewicz said he thought it did.
But Councilman Pat Herrington expected actual design plans, not a rough idea. Herrington was the only council member to vote against the original land sale.
In September of last year, Herrington said he thought the city ought to get the land back. He thought there was a provision in the city’s sale agreement with Willis that could allow the city to force the issue and take it back because of the six-month provision.
However, The Vidette found that no such provision exists — because nothing was filed with the county when the sale was finalized. Estes wrote in 2012 that the project would also include firming up the embankment of the Chehalis River with rock to protect it from erosion — but that’s not in the documents, either.
“That’s my signature,” Estes said, reviewing the documents provided to him by The Vidette.
Estes chalked it up to him being just three months on the job when all this happened. “I’m not sure how we missed this,” he added.
Estes says the city may need to revisit how it markets land sales. Although, he adds, the recent sales of the public works buildings were done “more appropriately” than the way the waterfront land sale was done.
The Grays Harbor Assessor’s Office values the property of the three parcels the city sold at $164,400. That means Willis got the property for 14 percent of its assessed value.
There’s nothing showing that Willis did anything wrong. In the end, he just got a good deal.
Montesano City Councilman Tyler Trimble says he doesn’t think Willis did anything wrong. He says this shouldn’t be about Willis, but about how the city administration failed in its duties to make sure the council’s wishes were acted upon.
He notes that he hopes the mayor will accept a bid on his own house if he were to offer 14 percent of its appraised value.
“You intentionally placed our employees in the spotlight and investigated them on allegations, which you claimed to be serious,” Trimble added at Tuesday night’s council meeting. “Those allegations are steps below the allegations against this administration. This administration should place themselves under the same scrutiny you have placed on others and you should be held to higher standards and the accountability far greater. … Tonight, I vow to the citizens of Montesano, I will not give up, This administration will be held accountable for their actions, that this great town with its great employees and great citizens, the ones who care about each other and will fight like Bulldogs fight, will be back in good hands shortly. In a recent commencement speech a commander in the Navy SEALS told graduates if they wanted to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks. I’m not backing down.”
Trimble and Councilwoman Marisa Salzer are both calling for an independent investigation to figure out what exactly happened.
“The waterfront issue has so many issues behind it that it is impossible to look at it as a whole and say it was a simple mistake,” Salzer said Tuesday night. “If we as the representatives of the city of Montesano expect citizens, employees and user groups to follow the rules, then why aren’t we doing that ourselves? … Why were the requests of the city council ignored? There are no written clause for public access and no legal was ever published. … If an outside investigation is looked at this issue, how much will that cost? I want to start hearing some answers and have at least one person take some responsibility.”
The records show that as early as September of 2011, Willis was pursuing an RV Park along the Chehalis River on his own property along the waterfront. The city issued him a determination of non-significance and gave him the go ahead for the development. But the project never moved forward. Six months after the initial permit was approved, Wincewicz approached the council to sell the city’s property, which would ultimately go to Willis.
The RV park was reconfigured for the new city land — and the permits for that project are now what’s moving forward.
The first phase of the permit will grade approximately six acres of land and construct a new access to the road to the rear of the property. The developer has proposed to remove existing concrete rubble from the top of the Chehalis River bank and cap it with clean gravel and grade an access path.
Schankel says that Cedar Street, a gravel road with many pot holes leading to the waterfront, would be re-located to the back of the property.
“This is going to immediately open up the river to people who have never been here before,” Schankel says.
A proposed phase two will include the RV park with support buildings and a phase three will provide an “assortment of retail and service oriented business,” the permit application states.
The original 2011 environmental application notes that the site would be used from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The new permit application states the site would be used from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
In the first phase, just two employees would be employed, the application states. The original permit from 2011, which included a full RV park with paved camp sites, restrooms and showers, called for six personnel and up to 200 transient guests.
Schankel says they are taking the project in phases so that they can get work done faster.
The city issued a determination of non-significance on May 8, noting that the project shouldn’t really disturb anything and should have no impacts to the floodplain. The city’s findings state that no wetlands would be filled in and the access road and grading would occur between June 1 and Aug. 31. Public comment on the project ended May 22. After, someone has 21 days to appeal the decision.
“We are lucky that Paul Willis is a steward in our community and came to us with the proposal to allow more public access and parking in the area,” Estes said. “Because of him, fishermen and the public will have one-of-a-kind access to the Chehalis River in Montesano.”