Friday, May 14, 2010

The War at Crescent Bar

Yesterday, the Seattle Times published a story about the end of the leases at Crescent Bar.  For those who aren't familiar with CB, it's an island in the Columbia River between Wenatchee and Vantage, formed by the building of the Wanapum Dam in the early 1960s.  The island is home to a golf course, about 100 condo units, and 300 RV/trailer-based units.  I use the term loosely, because they all began as at least a park-model trailer unit, but over the years the liberal definition of "enclosed patio" being consider acceptable, has resulted in what I affectionately call "mansion-style" trailers.  The additions onto these trailers often eclipse the original trailer itself, the base trailer essentially being the center foundation of a full-fledged house built around it.  

And I don't know if that was the original intent of the land use or not, but it's what's resulted due to either lack of oversight, or general indifference by whomever has been managing this land since it was leased out for private use back in the 70's.  I don't blame the residents of CB for what they did, it was the natural evolution of the island.  

Why do I care?  My grandparents bought a trailer on the island back near the beginning.  They spent many summers over there, with frankly all the other "old people" who lived there, whose families often came over for weeks at a time to visit.  It was a nice, yet incredibly boring, place to vacation.  My family still has a trailer over there, and yes, it's been built onto just like the others (though not nearly to the mansion-style extreme others have).  Now we're facing having to take a bulldozer to it because the Grant County PUD is choosing not to renew the lease on the land, instead wanting to convert it to public recreation area.

But is that the real reason?  I don't really think so.

There really are several arguments as to why the lease is not being (or should not be) renewed.  The most vocal claims are coming from the residents of Grant County near Crescent Bar, who claim that the land belongs to the residents of Grant County, and should be converted back to a public recreational area for the public's benefit.  This is a completely legitimate argument, and I can respect this opinion, if in fact this is true.  But if this is the case, there's more than enough island to share with both the current residents and to revitalize and improve some fantastic recreational area as well.  But that isn't satisfactory to the county residents, which makes me believe that there's more to it.  

Another common argument perhaps most often cited, is the stance of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who licenses Grant County to operate its two dams on the Columbia River, that the Commission "does not condone residential development and occupancy of project lands."  The FERC was later quoted as saying that they did not imply this to mean that the existing residents needed to be kicked off the island, but that is the popular view of the county.  Again, you hear this from the county residents as a reason to clear the private residences off the island, but in the same breath you hear people wanting to take possession of the existing condo units and rent them for residential use for the benefit of the county.  Again, something doesn't add up.

I'll tell you what this entire war of words is about -- that which has been the basis of nearly every war from the American Revolution to the Civil War and beyond -- MONEY.

The off-island residents of Grant County see Crescent Bar as nothing more than a bunch of Westsiders who bought into the island as a vacation property investment, at dirt cheap lease rates, and have been profiting for the last 30+ years off of the rental income and virtually free use rates.  And in some cases, they're probably right.

I admit, I don't know a thing about the condo units and how they or their owners operate.  According to research by the GCPUD, 66% of the condos are rented out as vacation property, ostensibly making for a great low-cost, high-value investment for the owners.  This may very well be true, and if so it's pretty sad.

What I do know is what my family does with our trailer.  In the over 30 years we have had our unit, we have never once rented it out, though often it does go unused for months at a time over the winter (and many days even over the summer).  The often quoted $33/year leases that each owner supposedly pays are one of the biggest lies of all.  Our family pays thousands of dollars each year in lease costs, property taxes to Grant County, maintenance and upkeep of the island, and other utilities.  This is far from a money-making venture.  In turn, we do our part to keep up the island, spend money in the local economy, and share the beauty with our friends and neighbors.  And I think the vast majority of the trailer leaseholders are in a very similar situation.

Today's Crescent Bar is not the Crescent Bar of 30 years ago, and I wish that the Grant County residents would realize that.  They claim that they've felt like outsiders on their island over the years, being kicked out of the "private community" that the Westsiders have built up for their own benefit -- unwelcome trespassers on their land.  And you know what?  As little as 10 years ago I would agree with them completely.  I grew up as a kid going to CB in the summer, visiting my grandparents and all the other "old people" in the trailer park who honestly did treat it like their own patch of heaven.  I was yelled at by grumpy old people, not for doing anything wrong (we all were good kids, honest!), but just for invading their peaceful way of life.

But let me tell you... that sentiment is all but gone.  Crescent Bar has been taken over by the next generation of leaseholders... mostly people who care about the community and want to share the island and be friends with the locals and make things right.  Unfortunately, the people of the county don't want to give them a chance.

As a lifelong resident of Washington State, I know the animosity that exists between the people east of the mountains versus those west.  And really, that's what this issue is about.  It's about the Eastsiders screwing over the Westsiders who they feel have been screwing them over for the past 50 years.  Most don't want an equitable solution, they want these Westsiders to go away, and to make them pay in the most miserable way possible.  And the Westsiders are far from the victims here.  They have brought it upon themselves after years of bad decisions and poor treatment of those Grant County residents by some of their own.  

I believe the Grant County PUD commissioners actually are more rational people than their decisions convey. But ultimately, they are politicians, elected by the citizens of Grant County, and most likely wanting to be elected again.  There are about 85,000 citizens in the county, among which about 60% actually vote based on state records.  On a divisive issue such as this, a mob-mentality sets in.  I have to question if the decision of the commissioners was based more on a desire to do what they believe is the right and fair thing to do, or solely of a desire to do what it takes to get re-elected.  

I wanted to believe that there could be a compromise where both sides could live in harmony, but it seems people don't want that.  All it takes is reading a few of the comments pages to the various news articles posted online to instantly see how closed-minded and mean-spirited people on both sides are.  I guess I'm not one to be easily blinded by anger, but it's plain to see that everyone involved in this matter is.  Nobody expected our lease to be renewed at as cheap of a rate as it has been, but those involved want us left with a hopeless ultimatum:  pay us Draconian rates to fix up the island the way we want it, or get out.  

As a result, barring any unexpected setbacks, we'll be packing up and leaving next summer.  It's not really about the money for us -- we're far from a rich family.  And truth be told, even if we were allowed to extend the lease at the previously-proposed rates of somewhere around $20,000 a year, we would have no choice but to leave.   I wish the best for what Crescent Bar will become, but sadly the realist side of me doesn't have high hopes.  Once the CB residents leave, it will be those same Grant County residents left to handle the upkeep and pay for the improvements, and I have my doubts that CB will ever return to the 1961 utopia it once was purported to be. I know there's little tangible value in what we have there, and after factoring in the cost to haul stuff away and resell it, we'd probably just hire someone to take a bulldozer to it instead. What we will take with us are the memories of our years at Crescent Bar.  As George and Ira Gershwin put it in their 1937 hit, no they can't take that away from me.  

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