Landowners sue San Juan County over access to Mount Grant

When public land is in your own backyard, private property can take on a whole new meaning.

Homeowners allege that people are trespassing on their property when accessing Mount Grant Preserve, which is owned by the county and a local nonprofit.

John and Rami Amaro filed a lawsuit last May against the San Juan County Land Bank and the San Juan Preservation Trust in Skagit County Superior Court.

The court will decide if the public can use easements over private property to access Mount Grant, or if the easements are only for the area’s landowners who share ownership of them.

Mount Grant’s parking area and paved roadways are part of private easements installed in 2012 when the preserve was under construction as a housing development. The easements are shared between the area’s property owners in the suit: the land bank, the preservation trust and the Amaros.

The San Juan County Land Bank is part of the county government. Their staff bought the defunct subdivision in 2015 and renamed it Mount Grant.

The San Juan Preservation Trust is a private nonprofit that helped the land bank pay off the deed to Mount Grant and shares ownership of two parcels. On most of the preserve, the trust also holds another easement that includes restricting residential development and protecting wildlife.

The land bank and preservation trust staff agree that the public is welcome on the easements to reach Mount Grant. The Amaros allege that the easements created during the subdivision construction were not originally made to access a public preserve, which makes using them for that purpose illegal.

The land bank’s defense attests it can invite the public to use the easements as their guests, as outlined in the original agreement. The Amaros maintain those invitees must be specific, identified people, not the general public.

The lawsuit also alleges that additional property, the land bank added to Mount Grant in 2017, is beyond the defunct development, and therefore outside the easements’ jurisdiction and also illegal.

When entering Mount Grant from West Valley Road, the parking area is part of Amaro Farm, which is mainly located east of the preserve. Geraldine Lane, which splits off of the main road, is partially owned by both the Amaros and the land bank. However, all the property owners in the suit have access to these areas under the easements’ conditions. For the Amaros, that means the public will be close to the home they plan to build off Geraldine Lane.

Rami Amaro said the lawsuit comes after roughly two years of trying to compromise with the county and preservation trust on how to better manage the public land. Originally, the Amaros said they requested items such as the installation of a trash can in the Mount Grant parking lot and garbage pick up; a fence separating their private property from the public; and the inclusion of the Amaros in the land bank’s insurance in case someone sued the couple over an incident on shared property.

When those requests were not met through private meetings, letters and the suggestion of a mediator, Rami Amaro said she had no choice but to sue.

Since the area has been opened to the public, Rami Amaro said people have camped on her property, started fires and left materials such as beer cans, syringes and condoms. She said Mount Grant visitors, believing the Amaros are trespassing on land bank and preservation trust property, “verbally assault” her family, particularly when they use their ATV or tractor.

“The issues that we had weren’t related to allowing the public to access Mount Grant,” she said. “We think Mount Grant is amazing and the community should be able to access it. It was the land bank’s refusal to deal with the repercussions associated with that use [that brought the lawsuit].”

Lincoln Bormann, director of the land bank, said the Amaros made most of their requests just last year and picked a mediator without the land bank or trust’s help. Both sides state the other was unwilling to settle.

Bormann added that the Amaros showed the courts that they initially planned to file for $2 million in damages. However, Rami Amaro said that initial claim is not part of the official lawsuit, which does not state a specific requested dollar amount, but does include covering the Amaro’s attorney fees, which she estimates is now around $15,000.

The lawsuit also states that allowing the public to access Mount Grant was never shared with the Amaros. According to court documents, the Amaros purchased their property after the land bank bought Mount Grant, but before the organization paid off the deed to acquire it, which was done through private donations and the land bank’s real estate excise tax. The Amaros said they believed that if the county purchased Mount Grant, the land would be used “in a manner similar to other properties owned by” the land bank and preservation trust, “with no signs, no public use and no intensive development,” according to the lawsuit.

Bormann explained that land bank staff were upfront about inviting the public to Mount Grant ever since the Amaros were closing on their property in 2015. He added that 24 of the organization’s 34 preserves are public, and 22 of those, like Mount Grant, are open daily.

The land bank’s mission, he said “is to save special places on the island,” so people can enjoy their features. One reason Mount Grant is extra special, he and the preservation trust’s Craig Canine agree, is because the paved road allows those with limited mobility to reach the preserve’s 740-foot ridge.

“It has spectacular views from the summit,” said Bormann. “The property is for everyone.”

Yet, for Rami Amaro, it’s the fear of those strangers coming onto her property that drives her pursuit for a solution.

“We don’t feel comfortable on our own property, and that’s sad,” she said. “When the whole world is going in and out of your driveway, you may never know [who is on your land].”

The lead attorney for the county on this case is Mark Johnson of a Seattle law firm; the trust is represented by Thomas Sandstrom of a Friday Harbor law office; and the Amaros are represented by Nick Power. Power is running for county prosecutor in the Nov. 6 election.

There are no upcoming court dates scheduled for the lawsuit.