Fox Island group probes support for seceding from PenMet

Posted on June 27th, 2022 By:

A group of Fox Island residents wants to leave PenMet Parks and take three properties with them.

Parks for Fox Island, alleging a lack of investment and poor communication, seeks to obtain the Tacoma DeMolay Sandspit Nature Preserve, Fox Island fishing pier and Cedrona Bay boat launch. It would acquire them the same way PenMet did.

The district, which formed in 2004, purchased the sandspit property from Tacoma DeMolay in 2010. It inherited the 0.3-acre Cedrona boat launch site from Pierce County the same year. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife built the concrete fishing pier on a 5.5-acre plat in 1995 and conveyed it to the county, which transferred it to PenMet in 2011.

A rare summery day drew people to the Tacoma DeMolay Sandspit Nature Preserve Thursday.

A rare summery day drew people to the Tacoma DeMolay Sandspit Nature Preserve Thursday. PenMet Parks bought the property in 2010 for $2 million.

“Since they didn’t spend a dime to get the fishing pier, give it to us like the county gave it to them in the first place,” said Craig McLaughlin, one of the group’s leaders. “DeMolay we know you bought, if you want us to get it appraised.”

Parks for Fox Island

Parks for Fox Island’s core group comprises about 15 people, with others “coming out of the woodwork” to help, said McLaughlin, a retired attorney and accountant who has lived on the island since 2016.

Several are current or former board members of the Fox Island Community & Recreation Association. That is the closest thing to an authoritative body on the island, though McLaughlin emphasized “FICRA is in no way involved in this effort. The board members who are involved are doing so personally and not as directors.”

The group asked PenMet commissioners to pass a resolution removing Fox Island from the district, but it declined. Now it’s pursuing a ruling by the county boundary review board. Before arguing its case, it must first present a petition signed by 5 percent of the island’s registered voters — about 160 people. That process began last week.

“We state our case and I’m sure PenMet will be there to state their case,” McLaughlin said. “It’s going to be an uphill battle, no doubt. It’s never been done before, but I think we’ve got a very good case.”

What would happen after?

The structure under which the properties would be governed hasn’t been determined. Possibilities include the island forming its own parks district, which would require a vote. The properties could be under ownership and management of the FICRA Trust, like the Nichols Community Center.

A woman and girl fish from Fox Island fishing pier.

The Fox Island fishing pier was transferred from Pierce County to PenMet Parks in 2011.

“That’s a question a lot of people we’re approaching are asking,” McLaughlin said. “ … If we’re successful, it’s up to the island how it wants to do this and it’s up to a majority vote. The only thing we need to know at this point is we have options.”

Some have told McLaughlin a metro parks district would be too expensive.

“My response is, we’re spending a million dollars now,” he said. “I think we can do it for a whole lot less. I know we can. We don’t know how to spend a million dollars.”

Fox Islanders and every property owner within the PenMet district are levied 67 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Islanders contributed slightly more than $1 million in 2021. This year the total is $927,000, or about $500 per average homeowner.

PenMet received a $2 million Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program grant to purchase a natural jewel at the sandspit and open it to the public. The 3.6-acre site at the island’s northeastern tip covers 3.6 acres and offers 1,500 feet of shoreline.

Neglect, or ‘deferred maintenance?’

Few improvements have been made there since, however, or at the other two properties, both sides agree. Parks for Fox Island calls it neglect; the district prefers the term deferred maintenance.

The group sent out a mailer two weeks ago that showed a dilapidated old house ringed by caution tape and a mossy-roofed concrete block building needing attention at the sandspit. Also pictured at the fishing pier are duct-taped handrails, a rail post held together with hose clamps and restroom doors badly needing paint. Some of those issues have been addressed.

Cedrona boat launch

The Cedrona boat launch provides access to a beautiful cove via a road end at 13th Avenue and Leschi Drive. PenMet got the small property from Pierce County in 2010.

PenMet has budgeted $245,000 this year to remove the house and a storage shed, and possibly build a picnic shelter at the sandspit. In 2023, it plans to spend about $1 million to renovate the building.

“We have identified quite a few deferred maintenance issues,” said PenMet board president Steve Nixon. “The major ones are part of our capital improvement plan and are being addressed as quickly as we can address them.”

What the sides can’t agree on, ironically, is whether there has been adequate communication.

Park host issue a tipping point

Frustration among some islanders peaked last fall, when the parks district eliminated the host program at the sandspit and fishing pier. Hosts for many years kept an eye on the parks at night, opened and closed the gates and performed minor maintenance in exchange for an RV parking space and paid utilities. They were let go on Oct. 1.

About 500 residents signed a petition contesting the move, to no avail. After conducting research on similar host programs, PenMet staff in January recommended not to reinstate the program. They met with islanders to explain the decision.

An old house at the sandspit park

An old house at the sandspit park will be removed this year.

McLaughlin claims that he has invited PenMet several times to walk the parks with residents and discuss their issues. He received no response.

He and others feel they are relegated to speaking during public comment periods at board meetings. Statements are limited to 3 minutes and commissioners aren’t allowed to respond.

PenMet responds

McLaughlin did exchange a half dozen formal letters with the district. The final one from PenMet, on May 10, stated that it hopes that over the next year islanders recognize it is addressing their concerns and that it doesn’t support the proposal to leave the district because it would cost more for fewer benefits. The letter concludes by saying it would be the final correspondence regarding the matter.

“We’ve invited them on five or six occasions to come out and meet with us and tour the properties and stand there and point out our concerns,” McLaughlin said. “Every one has not only been refused but totally ignored.”

Concrete block building at sandspit park

PenMet’s current plans have it renovating a concrete block building at the sandspit next year.

Nixon countered that he and other PenMet representatives have met and corresponded with islanders. He has committed to attending an all-island meeting at 6 p.m. July 11 at Alliance Church.

“I disagree with what they want to do and what they think needs to happen,” he said. “I personally believe disagreements are OK, but they are couching that as being ignored and I don’t think it’s accurate. That one part frustrates me because it’s not true. We certainly listen to everything they have to say and, quite honestly, in terms of deferred maintenance, we agree. Those things need to be addressed, and we’re addressing them.”

Besides the mailer, Parks for Fox Island has informed islanders of their efforts by launching a website and creating a Facebook page.

Not all islanders agree

Twelve-year resident Billy Sehmel has been following the effort. He believes the group raises valid concerns regarding maintenance, but doesn’t think divorcing from PenMet would be beneficial.

“I feel like PenMet does need to look at maintaining their property and not letting it get deferred too much,” he said. “I feel with the greater projects they have going on in the community (such as a $31.6 million community recreation center), they need to make sure they don’t lose sight of the properties that they already have and make sure they can maintain those ones before they get too big.”

Sehmel, an IBM manager, believes PenMet’s outreach has improved and that a public meeting could help. “But the best way for Fox Island to get representation is to have an island citizen run and get elected to the board to advocate for us,” he said.

Fox Island Fishing Pier

The concrete fishing pier, built by the state Fish & Wildlife Department, has views of the Tacoma Narrows Bridges to the north and University Place across the water.

He ran in 2019 and his father, Bill, was a longtime parks commissioner.

Resident Heidi Avak said the proposal wouldn’t eliminate park taxes but shift them to a new entity.

“So some families might look at this as still paying taxes in exchange for a lot less and paying more for programs off-island,” she said of possible future out-of-district fees for PenMet.

There are many details to be worked out before she could reach an informed decision. She fears complex laws regulating government agencies could result in lawsuits.

“I’m skeptical that this is the answer to current concerns and that there are many unintended consequences,” said Avak, a corporate compliance attorney.

The bottom line, said McLaughlin, is that Fox Islanders have provided millions of dollars in taxes and received little in return.

“As it stands right now, it is readily apparent to any objective observer from a visit to the fishing pier or the DeMolay Sandspit that little to nothing has been spent on either property that fits the definition (of capital improvement),” he wrote to the district. “This is true despite years of ownership. This is also true despite the fact that PenMet’s total levies on Fox Island homes have more than doubled since 2016 for a variety of reasons. Even with the dramatically increased revenues, PenMet has not spent any material amount of capital improvements on Fox Island.”