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Stavis couple’s battle with DNR continues

Seabeck resident Louise Lewis examines a partial washout on a road near her home. Lewis and her husband maintain the road themselves. - Photo by Paul Balcerak
Seabeck resident Louise Lewis examines a partial washout on a road near her home. Lewis and her husband maintain the road themselves.
— image credit: Photo by Paul Balcerak

By PAUL BALCERAK

Staff writer

Twenty feet may as well be 20 miles to Ed and Louise Lewis.

That’s the distance, in the couple’s estimation, that has them and their recently built home legally landlocked by state-owned property in the Stavis Natural Resource Conservation Area (NRCA) near Seabeck.

The couple was first featured in a story in the Feb. 16 CK Reporter about a DNR meeting regarding the conservation area.

Since that meeting, the Minnig Lane residents have been searching for answers that could make or break the property they’ve invested nearly everything in.

At issue is the fact that as the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has bought up land to contribute to the NRCA, land ownership in the area has been checker-boarded. As that’s happened, landowners like the Lewises have had their property cut off from legal road access.

They’re still able to physically access their property — for the time being — but they’ve been told that could change and they’re already caught in a few other conundrums.

They can’t hook up to the electrical grid.

They face a nearly 45-minute drive to get their mail if DNR shuts down road access outside their property.

They face the threat of their property being greatly devalued if they can’t somehow get legal road access.

They’re not the only property owners in the area worried about what could happen. But as two of the newest additions to the neighborhood on Minnig Lane, they could end up as unfortunate examples of a property buy being too good to be true.

“This is what we wanted, what we thought we were getting,” Louise said recently, looking around the heavily wooded, nearly pristine area surrounding her property.

She and Ed are now hoping they didn’t think wrong.

Plagued by technicalities

The Lewises first came to Kitsap County from Illinois in August 2006. They moved in with Louise’s parents temporarily to help care for the two, who were both having health problems.

“I’m basically it for taking care of my parents,” Louise said. “And they need the help.”

She and Ed had lived well in Illinois.

“We had a very nice home,” she said.

But once they arrived in Kitsap, they began searching for a place to build the home they had always wanted.

They envisioned a place where they could get away from the stresses and noise of big cities and suburbs.

They found two lots off Minnig Lane, near Seabeck, and by November 2006, they had secured a deed of trust. In February 2007, construction on their home began and in October of that same year, they moved in.

Ever the good stewards of mother nature, the Lewises took steps to ensure their home interfered with its natural settings as little as possible. They built the home out of view of the road; they overspent on a propane tank by about $2,500 to have it buried.

They had phone cables and wireless Internet running to the property, but no electricity.

Through a separate road dispute with neighbors, they came into contact with Eric Willhite, a DNR employee who has since left the agency. In a series of e-mails and letters exchanged with the Lewises, Willhite revealed DNR’s reluctance to allow electrical cables to be laid through DNR-owned land.

“The DNR (and Puget Sound Energy) will not grant utility access unless the residence has legal access (to a public road),” Willhite wrote in an e-mail dated May 14, 2007. “The DNR is preventing utilities from coming down Minning (sic) Lane crossing the DNR parcels to the north of you.

“Last year (two other residents) requested for PSE to put in a line to their property. The DNR denied their proposal, suggesting they work with neighbors to get power another way.”

In another e-mail from Willhite, dated May 15, 2007, the Lewises learned there was no record of their property ever having legal access.

That was news to them, given that they had heard nothing of the issue from Land Title Company which helped them secure their property, Ed and Louise said.

Left with no other option for electricity, the Lewises set up a propane-powered generator that still runs on their property and provides power to the house. It’s noisy and pollutes more than electrical cables would, but it’s what they’ve got.

Frustrations still mounting

Ed and Louise weren’t horribly concerned about the legal access issue as far as transportation was concerned. The checkerboard pattern shows up on maps, but in real life, there aren’t brightly colored swatches of land to denote passage from one land parcel to another.

Their chief concern was that without legal access, selling off one of their parcels would be difficult.

Willhite explained the dilemma in another e-mail, dated May 15, 2007.

“The issue for most residences is when a landowner is not able to get a loan from a lender because the lender finds no legal access,” he wrote.

The Lewises are still working with Land Title to find a resolution to that issue.

Transportation and physical access to their property suddenly became an issue at the Feb. 12 DNR meeting regarding a management plan for the Stavis NRCA, Louise said. It was there that a DNR official told her of a plan to close off DNR-owned land parcels with metal gates.

Doing so would effectively block the Lewises from accessing their land by motor vehicle.

Both claimed they got little from DNR in terms of reasoning for the idea.

“‘Limiting the access,’ that’s all they said,” Ed said. “They’re DNR, they don’t give reasons.”

DNR officials did not return calls by press time.

Since the Feb. 12 meeting, the Lewises have become considerably more worried about the fate of their land and of the area DNR is proposing to protect in the NRCA. They’ve also become considerably more pessimistic about the actions of DNR.

“We are so in favor of conserving the forests — we’re really into that,” Louise said at the Feb. 12 meeting. “But at the same time, to come in and buy up two lots (barring the Lewises from legal access to their road and property) that is underhanded.”

They also question just how well DNR will be able to care for land in the NRCA as they continue to buy up property in the area. DNR-owned portions of Minnig Lane that Ed and Louise pointed out near their property were noticeably rougher than privately owned portions, where landowners had filled in potholes and ditches with dirt and loose gravel.

“How can we expect (DNR) to take care of more property when they can’t even take care of the property they already have?” Ed said.

Gearing up for a fight?

The Lewises are doing their best to keep their heads up. They don’t know if they’ll be able to strike a deal with DNR over legal access; they’re hoping that their title company will be able to help facilitate one.

In the meantime, they’re speaking with neighbors to try and develop a road system to get legal access through a route that doesn’t cross DNR lands.

“We’re not letting it overwhelm us,” Louise said.

“We’re just pretty much turning it over to the hands of the lord,” Ed added.

The only contact they’ve had with DNR since the Feb. 12 meeting is a letter they received summarizing the contents of the meeting. As it stands, they have vehicle access to their property, though that could change if the DNR’s supposed claim about putting up gates has merit.

Louise paused, though, when asked if the move to her and Ed’s “dream house” was worth it.

“There’s two ways of answering that question,” Louise said. “One, we’re in so deep we can’t get out — we sunk all our money into this — and two, it’s the location that we wanted.”

That said, Ed is ready to fight.

“I don’t know where this is gonna go,” he said. “I just know these roads are bad and there’s no way (DNR is) gonna block physical access to our property.”

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