A once-private beach on Lopez will soon be public, thanks to the county council’s decision to purchase 10 acres of land known as the Clure property.
“This is bringing us to a conclusion to a process that started in April of 2016,” said San Juan County Land Bank Director Lincoln Bormann at the June 6 council meeting. “We are now roughly 20 public meetings from that starting point.”
Land bank officials want to own the land on the west side of Lopez to provide public access to the roughly 450-foot long beach, which is currently private.
For 10 property owners, the purchase means the loss of their exclusive beach and sole access to it through their private, shared easement. The easement, called Meadow Lane, runs through the Clure property, but the 10 landowners can legally use it to reach the beach. With the purchase, the land bank can do the same, attests Bormann.
“Meadow Lane will continue to be a private road,” Bormann told the Journal. “The land bank will have an easement to use it just as any other property owners might.”
Once construction is complete, islanders and visitors can take Shark Reef Road to Meadow Lane to enter a parking lot on the eastern side of the property. From there, they can walk on the lane to the beach, creating as much traffic as any private land owner, assured Borman.
Land bank officials originally wanted to use the nearby Eagle Roost Lane as the main access, but couldn’t receive permission for public use from the road’s owner, the Lopez Island Airport.
Larry Bailey, who shares the easement, thinks minimal traffic on the road will be unlikely. Even Lopez’s Point Colville, which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, has about 3,500 visitors, annually, he told the Journal. There are no signs advertising the trail from the road; none will be at the Clure property either.
Yet, the Clure property is unlikely to be as well known as Point Colville, said Bormann. Colville is part of the San Juan Island Monument, which is protected land commissioned by the U.S. President. If the visitor counts are equal, which Bormann estimated that could be, about nine people will visit the site a day on average, with more in the summer than winter.
Neighbors, like Bailey, wanted concerns like increased traffic addressed before the purchase.
“We’ve basically gone through a charade of meetings where it was pretty obvious that the decision had already been made,” Bailey told the Journal. “We feel our property rights have been violated.”
To address neighbors’ concerns, Bormann said land bank officials will spend two years creating a management plan, while the area will be closed to the public. Management plans are written for most land bank purchases and include a description of the preserve and supervision goals, including creating public access like trails and parking lots.
A year will be spent observing wildlife in the location, which is longer than the typical process. Then an ecological assessment will be performed. Once a draft plan is written, it will be open for public comment, said Bormann.
“I really want to take the time to protect the resources,” he told the Journal.
Land bank officials are also asking neighbors for permission to build an accessible trail along the public section of their beaches. Bormann expects to secure one easement soon, which would allow the public to walk almost a mile north, starting from the purchased land.
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, he explained.
Bailey told the Journal that the public section of tidelands is mostly underwater, meaning most beach-goers will opt to use the higher, private sections.
A website for opponents of the purchase, at savelopezshoreline.org, states the area is also “inaccessible from land” to extinguish fires or handle other emergencies. Bormann noted that while fire trucks couldn’t drive to the beach on the narrow Meadow Lane, they could still reach it. Fire concerns would be included in the management plan, he added.
Since the public hearing on the purchase last January, Bormann said land bank officials have held monthly meetings about the issue and approved the land purchase at the April meeting, which had about 80 attendees.
That marked a year since land bank officials first mentioned purchasing the property. Bailey said he hadn’t heard of the plan until about five months later, at a November land bank meeting on Lopez, which, according to Bormann, about 60 people attended.
The Clure property, titled after its owners’ surname, has been for sale, intermittently, for about a decade, estimated Bormann.
Councilman Jamie Stephens suggested neighbors’ complaints would be the same, no matter who owned the land.
“Their concerns are the same concerns they should be having right now, without us owning the property,” he said.
Before the vote, Stephens noted that he contributed to the $50,000 donation Land Bank officials needed to go towards the purchase of the property’s southern parcel. The goal was reached in three weeks, said Bormann.
The southern parcel is 4.7 square acres and costs $360,000. The northern parcel is about five square acres and costs $410,000. Bormann said both parcels were appraised at market value.
Land bank officials will pay for the land with the organization’s 1 percent tax on purchased property in the county, as well as state grants they will apply for in 2018. If the sale doesn’t go through, the $50,000 will be given to the seller of the property, said Bormann.
Bailey said he and the other properties’ owners are consulting a lawyer about their options now that the purchase is moving forward. Talks with the county prosecuting attorney proved “there is little basis for a suit,” said Bormann.
Both sides seem to agree on one issue — the beach’s natural beauty is worth the fight.
“It’s amazing to go down there,” Bormann said at the council meeting. “You pretty much feel like you are in some kind of undeveloped, pristine place.”