ESA Sends Two Retirees to the Poorhouse

Published August 1, 1999

For seven years, Viola Allen, an ailing 72-year-old widow, has been desperately trying to sell her eight-acre property in Lynnwood, Washington so she can finally have enough money to move out of her rapidly deteriorating home.

But local environmental activists are stopping Viola from selling the land she has owned for 44 years. They claim a tiny stream in a ditch going through the property is vital for salmon, a federally protected species. The problem is: There has never been salmon in the “stream.”

Viola’s story sadly illustrates how endangered species and other regulations are increasingly exploited by environmentalists to pursue an anti-free market agenda that does nothing to protect threatened species, but does a lot to violate individuals’ constitutionally protected property rights.

This controversy began in 1992 when Viola and her neighbor, 82-year-old Delila Gribble, agreed to sell their combined 18-acre property to Diana Clay, a Lynnwood housing developer, who planned to build a 51-house subdivision on the parcel. It took over two years just to resolve an annexation dispute between the City of Lynnwood and the county before approval was finally given for the annexation in 1996.

That’s when a local environmental group, Citizens for a Natural Habitat (CNH), stepped in to stop the project.

CNH activists claim that a tiny stream called Tunnel Creek, which runs through Viola and Delila’s properties, is vital to the survival of endangered salmon. That’s difficult to believe, given that Tunnel Creek is a ditch that is completely dry in the summer. It does have a tiny trickle of water in the winter.

Viola, who has never seen a single salmon in the creek in the 44 years she has lived there, says, “If salmon are going to get to Tunnel Creek, they would have to sprout legs and walk up here.”

Experts agree. Several studies have determined that Tunnel Creek is not capable of supporting salmon, while CNH activists offer no credible research to justify their claim. The Washington Department of Fisheries, for instance, issued a formal opinion that Tunnel Creek is not and could never be a salmon-bearing stream. Developer Clay hired a wetlands biologist from an environmental consulting firm to study the stream; he, too, found that the stream was not capable of supporting salmon. Even the City of Lynnwood’s environmental engineer agreed with that assessment, which was corroborated by yet another environmental engineering firm the city hired to study the stream.

Yet CNH ignores these findings. After the City Council approved the development, CNH filed a lawsuit in county court on April 19 to block the project, insisting that the stream is important for salmon preservation–but again offering no proof.

CNH’s opposition to the development may have less to do with its desire to save salmon than with its desire–and that of local residents–to prevent further construction in this particular Lynnwood neighborhood. CNH director Jeff Hall claims there isn’t enough open space in the neighborhood as it is. Since salmon preservation is an issue of great concern in the Pacific Northwest, Hall probably figures CNH stands a better chance of stopping the development by cloaking its not-in-my-backyard attitude in the loftier-sounding rhetoric of protecting endangered species.

After everything CNH put Viola through, the group’s lawyer nevertheless had the gall to ask Viola to donate her property to the group. Not surprisingly, she declined: “I told him in some not so very nice words: you can forget it.”

Feisty to the end, Viola and Delila nevertheless are facing financial ruin. While other developments have been planned and built in the area during the dispute, the ladies are stuck with a soaring tax bill. Although they get monthly payments from Clay that partially compensate them for the property, it is not enough. Delila says, “If this doesn’t get settled, I’m going to be in the poorhouse.” Viola says the tax bill on her property, valued at $591,000, is $2,900.

Things are especially dire for Viola. She suffers from emphysema and must stay on oxygen throughout the day. Her house is in such poor condition that every time it rains–which happens quite a bit in the Pacific Northwest–her basement floods. The resulting mildew makes her medical condition even worse.

This simply cannot be the right way to protect the environment.

Maybe the sad saga of Viola and Delila will finally force a long-overdue reconsideration of how environmental protection laws are enforced in this country. Ideally, that re-evaluation will take place while there is still time for the ladies to enjoy what’s left of their Golden Years.

John K. Carlisle is the director of the Environmental Policy Task Force at The National Center for Public Policy Research. He can be reached at [email protected].