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Supreme Court KOs case of two Kitsap Couples

A pair of families owning homes atop a cliff — overlooking Lake Symington Dam — got the bad news from their attorney Thursday, April 3:

“The (state) Supreme Court has denied their petition for review,” said attorney Ron Franz of Seattle. “I wish there was something more we could do, but I don’t think there is.... I’m real disappointed. This is the end of the line for them.”

The Saathoffs and the Browns of Camp Union sued Kitsap County for remodeling the dam’s outflow and salmon run, alleging the changes altered the course of Big Beef Creek, dangerously undermining their embankment.

The two families allege their homes could plunge into the creek at any time. Structural experts agree. Both families now live in trailers — on their land, but as far from the cliff as possible — and claim to be nearly penniless due to legal costs and the loss of capital when their properties became too hazardous to live in, and too devalued to sell.

“I feel like I’ve been raked over the coals,” said Susan Brown, who with her retired Navy husband Tom and elder neighbors Ervin and Joanne Saathoff, launched the suit in the mid 1990s. “All we wanted was for them (the county) to fix the problem so I could sell my home and move on. But now, I can’t get fair value on the property.”

The Browns and their three children live at 4185 Redwing Trail.

“We’re trying to buy another home,” she said, “but this has set us back (financially) 10 years. I stopped paying the mortgage on the house in 1998.”

Mrs. Saathoff, who with her husband lived near the dam for more than a decade, is fatalistic about events.

“When Superior Court ruled Big Beef a river, not a creek, I knew that was the end,” she said, recollecting an earlier stage in the legal battle.

“I’m disappointed but not surprised” at the Supreme Court’s decision, she said. “We were screwed from the beginning.”

Contracted private attorney for the county, Greg Wall of Port Orchard, said the plaintiffs sued the wrong party.

And the court rated Big Beef a river, not a creek.

Environmental safeguards on rivers are much stiffer than on creeks. This stopped the families from building concrete retaining walls or piling stones to protect their properties.

Wall said the county only acted as banker (floating a bond) for a project ordered by the state and designed and built by a private contractor — on orders from the Lake Symington Neighborhood Association.

The Saathoffs bought the property in 1991, prior to changes in the dam’s outflow. They have 555 feet of waterfront on the creek.

The Saathoffs said the first winter after the new outflow was built, water began to erode their bank dramatically. A 45-degree slope became a sheer cliff with the deep underscoring.

The properties won’t sell because of disclosure laws. They can’t move the homes because of the delicate condition of the cliff top. They can’t drive cables into the cliff side because it’s too dangerous.

The Saathoff’s home was valued at $144,900 in 1994. The three-bedroom home is located at 4225 N.W. Redwing Trail. The couple also have stopped paying their monthly mortgage of $670.

The dam was cited as “unsafe” by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s. The state’s Dam Safety Service (under the aegis of the Department of Ecology) said the dam’s spillway could “fail” and ordered a fix. The neighborhood association contacted the state asking what to do, then contacted the county as a taxing agency. The county created a bond allowing homeowners to vote-in a tax to pay for a new spillway et al. A private contractor designed and built the new spillway.

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