The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Unrest is unravelling fabric of Cathlamet


By Rick Nelson

People are saying the next meeting of the Cathlamet town council (Monday, 6 p.m. in the Cathlamet fire hall) should be moved to a bigger venue, for they expect a large crowd to attend and protest the council's vote last month to purchase a Main Street parking lot.

Eagle readers may have seen some reporting and several letters to the editor concerning the issue. Some of the objections to the purchase which readers have expressed include:

1. The town's offer was much higher than appraisals from the county assessor's office and a real estate appraiser. Why the difference, people ask, and there has been no formal explanation.

2. The process was secretive and rushed. The planned purchase appeared on a council agenda several months ago with a document saying that a $1,000 earnest money offer had been accepted and there would be council action at that meeting. However, the item was pulled from the agenda, but not after members of the public had seen a copy of the document. After an executive session at a subsequent council meeting, the council authorized the mayor to obtain an appraisal on the unnamed piece of property. Then, at the June meeting, the council went again into executive session, and upon reconvening, Mayor Dale Jacobson asked for a motion. There was almost no discussion; Jacobson called for a vote even before all council members had a chance to speak on the motion, which passed 3-2.

3. At that point, several members of the audience spoke against the motion and the process, and the mayor and council commented they intend to cease using the lot for parking and turn it into green space. This had never been discussed in an open session of the council, and, again, people objected, citing the lack of transparency and the loss of convenient parking in the Main Street area.

People have expressed other complaints, many of a personal issue.

To me, the three issues mentioned above are the main issues, and the public hasn't had a real answer to the questions they raise. However, since the June meeting, council members have offered some explanatory comments.

I had a visit from Council Members Sue Cameron and Jean Burnham last week. They offered a nine page article, "Public Interest Value Versus Market Value: Why Public Policy Makers Pay More Than Market Value For Preservation Land."

They declined to make specific comment, leaving me to try to infer what they wanted to say. After skimming part of the article, I learned that public interest value can differ widely from normal appraisal value when it comes to preserving land.

On Tuesday, Cameron offered more comments during a regional forum of local governmental officials before the regular meeting of the board of county commissioners.

The property can be developed in such a way that it enhances community revitalization as a town plaza, she said.

At one point, the lot was owned by a bank which valued it at $95,000. The current owners paid $75,000 for it, and the town will buy it for $68,000.

The lot was the site of a gas station and garage and had an underground storage tank that leaked. All but about 10 square feet of the site have been decontaminated, and the lot is suitable for public use, she said.

"We think it was a really good opportunity," she said.

Those comments will do little to assuage the feelings of people upset with the purchase, and they'll try to express their dissatisfaction at Monday's council meeting.

Personally, I was glad to hear that the town wanted to buy the lot, but that was before I learned it was to be green space or a town plaza. There's a shortage of convenient parking for people working on Main Street, and it's disappointing to see that disappear.

I'm also extremely disappointed in the process. At the least, the public deserves a better explanation of why the purchase price is so much higher than the appraisals the council received. If, as one council member told me, the council had very little time to review the appraisal they received, then that's a problem, too.

The public interest may be served with the acquisition of open space, but the ill will generated by the process will poison relationships among town residents for years to come.


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