Tag Archives: Taylor Shellfish Farms

Tidelands search: A hunt for truth or Pandora’s box?

Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark has decided it is time to see how many private shellfish farms are encroaching on public tidelands.

Goldmark said he made up his mind when he learned that Taylor Shellfish Farms appeared to have crossed a private property line with a geoduck farm and trespassed onto state tidelands in North Bay. If true, it would be the second time that Taylor was caught in such an act. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

Long before Goldmark took office in January, groups including the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat were talking about places they suspected trespass was occurring.

When I raised the question last year about using technology to check all state tidelands, officials with the Department of Natural Resources told me they didn’t have the staff to do that. OK, I said, but what if you could show that you could collect enough money to pay the cost through charges for back leases where trespass was taking place. That would not work, I was told, because the revenue does not come back to pay the staff.

It turns out that this statement may have been only half true. Revenues from tideland leases go into the Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account. Half the money in the account goes to local entities for restoration and recreation projects. The other half goes back to the DNR for management. If management includes checking boundaries and if the state could collect twice the cost, then the program would pay for itself.

When I made that point this week to Bridget Moran, deputy supervisor for aquatic and agency resources, she downplayed the revenue-generating aspects. With the tight economy and businesses hurting, I guess it wouldn’t look good for the state to focus on cold, hard cash. Because geoduck revenues go into that aquatic lands account, the fund really isn’t hurting anyway.

“Our intent is to make sure the people’s resources are being managed in a sustainable way,” Moran told me. “If through this process we find trespass, we will put that money into the ALEA.”

Moran is new to the job, coming to DNR from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and previously the Department of Agriculture. In my dealings with her, I have found her to be exceedingly capable, and I wish her well in her new high-profile position.

My only suggestion — and this idea comes from Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms — is to communicate well with the growers. Call a public meeting or two to explain what is going on, what is expected of the growers and what the growers can expect from the state.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Pandora’s shellfish basket may still contain a legal bombshell. Taylor Shellfish Farms has advanced a legal theory contending that, in the early 1900s, the state intended to sell the property in Totten Inlet where Taylor was growing geoducks. Under that theory, the state should be forced to correct the “mistake” made so many years ago.

I don’t how legitimate the idea is, but when Taylor and Goldmark settled their dispute out of court, the question went unresolved. If problems are widespread, might one or more disgruntled shellfish farmers raise the theory again?

I have written a lot about this topic of trespass, both in stories and in Water Ways. Check out a previous blog post from May 7, when I listed most of my writings.

DNR says Taylor Shellfish claims are all wet

Washington Department of Natural Resources has fired back at Taylor Shellfish Farms, making the debate over a disputed trespass more interesting than ever.

Taylor says the state property where the company has been growing shellfish should have been conveyed to private property owners in 1905. Everyone has assumed through the years that the property was in private ownership. Consequently, the company should own the property today, according to the company’s position, which is based on many technical legal arguments.

Not so, says the DNR, which shows in its filing how previous surveys and sales of tidelands indicate that past property owners understood the boundary lines. Taylor’s claims are without merit, according to the agency.

I outlined DNR’s arguments in a story in today’s Kitsap Sun. One may also read the document filed in Thurston County Superior Court (PDF 1.6 mb).

Meanwhile, Taylor has filed a damage claim of $4.5 million related to this case.

It could be an interesting court battle, but I suspect that neither side wants to end up in a courtroom, where spelling out all these arguments could be long and intense. On the other hand, each side may be convinced that it is 100 percent right, which could make a settlement more difficult.

If there is a desire on both sides to settle this case, I suggest that they begin by agreeing to a harvest management plan for the shellfish in the disputed beach. Taylor claims that its damages are continuing, in part because some of the geoducks should be harvested right away. Agreeing on how to manage the shellfish, pending a resolution of the case, could set the stage for further discussions.

Taylor shellfish case: Pandora’s box has been opened

When Taylor Shellfish Farms was found to be trespassing on state tidelands in Totten Inlet by growing geoducks and oysters, I wrote a blog entry (July 23) suggesting that the state look into other potential encroachments on all its tidelands:

We could be opening Pandora’s Box, in which property boundary encroachments are revealed by expensive surveys. That could lead to expensive legal battles over who gets to claim what. It’s a rather chilling prospect, but who knows how much potential revenue the state may be missing.

Meanwhile, the state is not subject to adverse possession laws, yet private property owners are.

Some might say we should leave this alone, but I do not subscribe to the idea that ignorance is bliss.

Later, I was told by Fran McNair of the Washington Department of Natural Resources that the Legislature maintains tight control over the Division of Aquatics Lands, and there is no assurance that any money recovered would even pay for the staff it would take to uncover the problems. In fact, she said, uncovering the problems with Taylor has taken staff away from their main duties, and now they are behind on other projects. See my entry from Oct. 30.

I have to admit now that I did not know how big Pandora’s box might be. Taylor has taken the approach that the tidelands in Totten Inlet should have been conveyed to private property owners back in the early 1900s. While the state may not be subject to adverse possession, the company’s lawyers are advancing some interesting legal theories about why Taylor should end up owning the land in question.

If Taylor were to prevail, what would that mean to other areas where shellfish growers may be encroaching on state land? Maybe the state would lose more land? Would it make any difference if a bunch of shellfish growers are already using the land as if it were theirs?

Anyway, the latest news on this issue comes from my story last week about Taylor filing a lawsuit in federal court (see Wednesday’s Kitsap Sun) in addition to the case already filed in state court (see Feb. 23 Kitsap Sun). For the legal details, download the complaint filed in state court (PDF 2.2 mb) and the complaint filed in federal court (PDF 2.0 mb).

Other recent stories:

Michelle Ma, a reporter for the Seattle Times, wrote a nice background piece in Sunday’s paper on geoduck harvesting in light of the recent controversy in Totten Inlet.

Brad Shannon, a reporter for The Olympian, wrote a somewhat revealing piece today about Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark’s ethics pledge to avoid making decisions affecting major campaign donors.

And, if you’re new to the commercial geoduck issue, Craig Welch has written an article long on history for Smithsonian magazine.

Legal writing rarely reaches this level of precision

Taylor Shellfish Farms has filed a lawsuit against the state regarding the company’s so-called “trespass” on state tidelands in Totten Inlet. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

I’d like to say something here in a nonjudgmental voice, taking neither side in the legal battle between Taylor Shellfish Farms and the Washington Department of Natural Resources:

I found a work of art in the legal complaint filed by Taylor’s team of lawyers.

Given the complex and obscure legal theories, I can’t begin to predict how this will turn out. But I want to say that the complaint drafted by the law firm Gordon Derr was written with such precision that anyone can walk through the document and not feel lost in what could have been a dense jungle of legal arguments.

Download the complaint (PDF 2.2 mb) from the Kitsap Sun’s Web site and read it for yourself. But remember that we have not yet heard the arguments from the state’s side. Maybe it’s all empty rhetoric, but I thought it was worth giving credit for the writing itself. I can’t tell you how many times I have struggled through legal documents trying to understand much simpler arguments than these.

Whether the state’s counter-arguments would be as eloquent may never be seen. Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark has expressed interest in settling this out of court. His only point, according to his chief spokesman Aaron Toso, is that he wants the settlement and lease agreement to be open for public review and discussion.

Bill Dewey, spokesman for Taylor, told me a couple of weeks ago that Bill Taylor was disappointed with a meeting he had with Goldmark on Feb. 9. The meeting followed Goldmark’s decision not to lease the property to Taylor for the time being. See the Feb. 5 story in the Kitsap Sun.

Taylor expected in the meeting to talk about issues regarding the company’s inadvertent use of state tidelands and how to work through the problems. But the discussion never got beyond a general overview of the shellfish industry.

It seems likely that Taylor left the meeting convinced that he needed to take a stand, thus the filing of the lawsuit.

Toso told me this morning that Taylor had been informed in advance that no lawyers were going to be present and that Goldmark did not want to get into what could be considered negotiations.

“We had conveyed on two different phone calls that we weren’t going to be negotiating in that meeting because we didn’t have lawyers there,” Toso told me. “The commissioner understands that the shellfish industry is an important part of Washington’s economy. It’s still the commissioner’s goal that this can be settled outside of a courtroom.”

Taylor offers evidence to justify shellfish trespass

The Washington Department of Natural Resources and Taylor Shellfish Farms have reached an agreement that could settle trespass damages — or maybe not.

The damages resulted from Taylor’s cultivation of geoducks on state-owned lands and include back lease payments, taxes, interest and compensation for DNR staff time. See my story to be published in tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun.

Taylor officials say they have always believed that the land in question was owned by the company. Apparently, they have convinced DNR officials as well as Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland, who worked out the details of the settlement agreement (PDF 1.8 mb) as he prepares to leave office.

Some environmental folks and local residents of Totten Inlet don’t believe for a minute that Taylor was an innocent party.

The case has grown more and more complicated. I’m still wading through the details, but my latest story takes a stab at explaining Taylor’s arguments in favor of a verdict of innocence. For more details, download Taylor’s presentation (PDF 2.5 mb) to the state.

I’m not sure at this point if the incoming commissioner of public lands, Peter Goldmark, will jump into this issue, but late this afternoon his spokesman, Aaron Toso, issued this statement:

Commissioner-elect Goldmark has said all along that there needs to be public involvement in this process. By the looks of this agreement, the people of the state are silenced in an attempt to sign a lease during the comment period.

I’ll be interested to see — and report on — the next chapter in this strange controversy.

Should the state look for more encroachments on its tidelands?

Maybe it’s just my nature to dislike clouds of uncertainty. I’m always hoping that people will do what they can to blow the clouds away.

Taylor Shellfish Farms faces a $1.3 million assessment for growing shellfish on about 16 acres of state tidelands. This has gone on for years, and it would still be going on if not for a group of folks opposed to a new method of geoduck harvesting used by Taylor. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

I’ve talked about this before in Watching Our Water Ways. Whether it was an innocent mistake by Taylor may be an important question, but I’m just as interested in whether Taylor and other growers may be encroaching onto state tidelands in other areas.

Fran McNair, aquatic lands steward for the Department of Natural Resources, said it is up to shellfish growers and other tideland users to know their boundaries. She said this fine against Taylor could serve as a warning to everyone.

I asked her whether recovering $440,000 for a three-year period — $1.3 million with treble damages — would cause the state to look for other places where private operators are encroaching on state land.

Her response was that the Legislature maintains tight control on the budget for aquatic lands management and she does not have the staff to go out looking for other encroachments. Of course, if anyone knows of any, she would be glad to check them out.

McNair said she can’t even use any portion of the “extra” money recovered from Taylor to go looking for other encroachments — even if money recovered by the effort would fully pay the cost. To take any action would require a legislative appropriation, she said.

In fact, working on the Taylor problem has diverted staff from their normal jobs, she said, and now they are behind on what they should have been doing.

When I ask these questions, everyone tells me that conducting formal surveys of tidelands is very expensive. I guess it is because of the difficulty of getting survey equipment into areas covered by water. My suggestion is to use GPS and other modern equipment to follow the legal boundaries of state property in a boat and see where people might be using state lands without authorization. Folks/ could be off by a few feet in many places, but that’s not where you’d focus further efforts.

Apparently, the state can’t look back more than three years when trying to collect lost revenues. But I suspect that this statutory limit could easily be changed by the Legislature. It also appears that the DNR can’t afford to touch this idea without a legislative appropriation.

State Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, was key to developing a program to remove derelict boats from state waters. Although it’s a costly effort, the DNR is getting the worst of the eyesores and environmental hazards out of the water. And now boat owners are beginning to take care of their own boats, knowing that the state is serious about the problem.

I have no idea how many tideland owners are encroaching onto state lands, but finding the answers to this question has the potential of actually making some money for the state.

Tideland boundary questions could be Pandora’s Box

When I first heard that Taylor Shellfish Farms had encroached on state-owned tidelands on Totten Inlet, I began to wonder if this was an isolated case or was happening all over Puget Sound.

After talking to a variety of people, I suspect that shellfish growers and shoreline property owners may be encroaching on state lands and each others’ property in many places. One observer said the problem may be less in some northern areas of Puget Sound, where stakes on the beach are easily seen as demarcation lines.

I started to explore this issue in a story in today’s Kitsap Sun. I assure you it won’t be the last.

We could be opening Pandora’s Box, in which property boundary encroachments are revealed by expensive surveys. That could lead to expensive legal battles over who gets to claim what. It’s a rather chilling prospect, but who knows how much potential revenue the state may be missing.

Meanwhile, the state is not subject to adverse possession laws, yet private property owners are.

Some might say we should leave this alone, but I do not subscribe to the idea that ignorance is bliss.