City pledges fixes in future land sales in wake of Vidette investigation
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Montesano Mayor Ken Estes and City Administrator Kristy Powell pledged changes in the way the city handles future real estate transactions in the wake of a Vidette investigation that found glaring holes in the way the city sold 47 acres of its property along the Chehalis River in 2012. And Community Development Director Mike Wincewicz pledged that no final permits for a potential RV park along the former city waterfront will be granted without guaranteed public access and a static easement to secure that access.
“Even if the river area were to erode away, we will make sure the public access is secure,” Wincewicz said.
In 2012, the city sold 47 acres of property along the Chehalis River to developer Paul Willis for a proposed RV park for $23,000. Willis owned the land around the city property. There was only one other “bidder” for the property, the husband to a city employee.
Council members had thought they were approving the sale of the land with conditions that public access be maintained, a walkway be developed, erosion control methods be put in place and a six-month timetable that could allow the city to take the land back. But none of those conditions were in the sale agreement — or even in the city minutes, for that matter.
Powell says the documents granting the city easement rights guaranteeing future access were prepared by the city. But it, somehow, never made its way from the city to the title company or to Willis. At some point, the ball was dropped and the documents weren’t recorded with the county.
“We prepared the documents and they should have been on file,” Powell said. “We’re still looking into the specifics of what happened.”
The mayor signed the sale documents, but says he never noticed the missing paperwork until presented the findings by The Vidette last month.
Montesano City Councilwoman Marisa Salzer and Councilman Tyler Trimble have both called for an outside investigation to figure out what happened. As a former reporter for The Vidette, Salzer had done some initial research into the waterfront sale. She resigned from the newspaper last year and won a seat on the city council soon after.
Powell said an outside investigation will be up to the full city council, but she doesn’t feel it is necessary. She says The Vidette’s investigation has already shown the holes in the process and the city is taking the proper steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I think there can be some real good that comes out of this,” Powell said.
Among the issues that came about were questions on if the land sale was properly advertised.
Based on a resolution approved by the city in 2005, the only requirement is that land sales be properly posted with a “for sale by owner.” Then, the city must wait for people to notice. That’s exactly what Wincewicz says he did.
“I spent 20 minutes digging that sign down,” he said.
He said he took a photo of the posting. But, it’s since been lost.
Powell provided a memo from City Clerk Kim Schankel, who said that she laminated a red “for sale” sign on the property.
“It is my understanding he was instructed to post on the property,” Schankel wrote. “I laminated this in the police department with Cyndi Bies helping me with the laminating machine. I then hgve it to my supervisor Mike Wincewicz.”
Schankel is the wife to Paul Schankel, who is developing the property for Willis. Bies’ husband was the only other person to put a bid on the sale.
Powell admits it would be nice if they had other people who are not related to the city step forward to admit they saw the posting. Powell says any future postings will have photos that are kept on file.
But since the verification of the sale has been lost to history, it’s opened the city up to questions if the sale was ever properly posted. Powell acknowledges that could have been avoided had the city taken a legal ad in a local newspaper or listed it with a real estate agent. That never happened. At one point, the mayor thought it did happen — but realizes now he had spoken incorrectly.
“I recognize the value of having outside, independent verification,” Powell says.
Powell and Mayor Estes say they will recommend changes to the City Council in the way land sales are advertised in the future. Powell notes that last year the city did list its two old public works buildings and land with Price & Price Real Estate. Those pieces of property have drawn several potential buyers over the past few months and resulted in one sale.
As for the conditions of the sale, Powell says the city is working with Willis to draw up a new deed that better reflects what was approved by the council, specifically the public-access guarantee.
“We’re lucky this came up now and not in 25 years,” Powell said. “I’m certain we’ll be able to get this worked out.”
Wincewicz says that as part of the permitting process, he will also ensure a static 10-foot access along the waterfront that will continually be for public use. The city will not approve the project if the public access is not contained in the permit, Wincewicz said, adding that a static access means that even if the river erodes away, the public access will not go away with the river. The permits have not been granted. The state Department of Ecology has insisted on a public hearing before the city’s hearings examiner because “fill” dirt will be brought on to the site to construct an access road.
DATES TO 2006
Wincewicz says that although Willis bought the land within a three-month time period after the city first declared the land surplus, the idea had been kicked around for years.
Back in 2006, Willis had first floated the idea of an RV park along the river, but ran into issues with the footprint for the development he wanted. A smaller footprint had been proposed and approved by the city in 2011.
“This has been dragging on for years,” Wincewicz said.
In the fall of 2011, Powell says she and Wincewicz had visited the old Bowers Construction building, now owned by Willis. The city was flirting with the idea of renting or buying that building and somehow crafting it into a public works facility. In the end, the idea was rejected — and the new public works facility at Beacon Park was constructed.
But, at the old Bowers building, the idea of surplussing the neighboring city-owned land came about, Powell said.
“The land has always been a headache to me,” Wincewicz said. “It’s been a dumping ground and the city has never been able to maintain it or give the people real access.”
“A Volkswagen bug can fit in those pot holes,” Estes added.
Wincewicz said that Willis never pushed for the property to be surplussed. But, when the proposal came into the city by Willis to buy the land, it was an idea Wincewicz said he supported.
“I think it’s going to be a great idea and it’s going to be great for the public,” Wincewicz said.
Although the city could have waited longer before selling the land to see if anyone else would bid higher than the $23,000 offer, Wincewicz said he felt comfortable enough to recommend the sale.
The Grays Harbor Assessor’s Office had valued the property of the three parcels the city sold at $164,400.
Wincewicz said the sale may have been for 47 acres, but it consists of 5.35 acres in a “useable area” unmarked by wetlands or the buffers needed for wetlands. Take away the 10-foot public access area, 0.4 acres for public parking and 0.54 acres for public access, and the net usable area drops to 4.2 acres, Wincewicz said.
Meantime, Estes has come down hard on Trimble for his comments at last week’s council meeting. Trimble accused the city administration of bullying him and lying and demanded an investigation into how the city dropped the ball involving the sale.
“I am exhausted of continually being told what I want to hear, not being told the truth — lied to many times just to think I’m happy with an answer, and being bullied to conform to what you want,” Trimble said. “… 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.”
Estes said that Trimble “staged” the event and had a critic of the city administration film his comments and put it on social media.
“Have you ever come in to look at the documents on the land sale?” Estes wrote in a May 29 letter to Trimble. “Have you asked Mike Wincewicz or any staff about the sale of property? Do you know any real facts? Allegations without proof are either foolish, libelous or both. I am requesting that you provide me with the specifics to back up your allegations immediately. I want to see the evidence that backs up the broad brush statements made in council meeting and on social media. The city is more than willing to meet with any investigator — state or other, on any procedure. At the next council meeting, we will provide the council with the facts and they can then decide if they want to go forward with an investigation.
“I, too, have read the Navy Seal address. I think you might want to pick up on the other nine points before you continue down the path you have apparently chosen. I have high moral standards, which you have, by previous actions, demonstrated that you do not. Rhetorical threats do not serve the city nor the community well.”
Trimble credited The Vidette for revealing the holes in the city’s land sale process, but says a third party should be brought in to ensure the city administration answers for its actions.
The city council is now on a summer schedule, with the council recently reversing a decision that would have kept a regular schedule during the summer. The next council meeting is set for 7 p.m., June 24 at City Hall.