Island County official to pay $5,000 for building without permit

CAMANO ISLAND — It’s been three years since Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson and her husband, Ken, did some work on their Camano Island home without the required county building permit.

What followed was a string of code enforcement orders, fines and a failed lawsuit by the Emersons that cost the couple and Island County taxpayers a lot of money.

On July 1, Emerson announced that she and her husband have reached a settlement with Island County. Emerson represents Camano Island on the three-member Island County Board of Commissioners. She was elected in November 2010, after the enforcement issues began.

The Emersons agreed to pay the initial enforcement fine of $5,000 for unpermitted construction.

They also withdrew appeals of the county’s actions, so Island County planning officials agreed to refund some of the appeal-process fees charged to the Emersons.

In addition, with the understanding that the Emersons provide a state Department of Ecology approved wetlands investigation, the county agreed to waive nearly $40,000 in fines that were tallied at a rate of $500 a day during the period when the Emersons were fighting with county officials over the permit process.

Even with the canceled fines, Emerson said she and her husband are out more than $50,000 for several hydro-geologic studies they commissioned to prove that no wetlands exist on their property, an issue at the heart of county’s permit process.

“We fully expect that this third and final (hydrogeologist) study due in August will prove that we have no wetlands on our property and that we did no wrong in building a new patio in our back yard,” Emerson said. “I am not happy about having to pay for this and I would not want any of my constituents to pay fees for having done no wrong.”

The Emersons’ lawsuit against Island County cost taxpayers more than $50,000 and countless hours of staff time to resolve the issue, said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who represents south Whidbey Island.

“The Emersons chose to add on to their building without a necessary permit. They got caught,” said Price Johnson in a July 2 newsletter to her constituents. “Then they chose to blaze a new path in their reaction rather than follow the established appeal process in place for all citizens of Island County. The self-inflicted wounds of permit denial and enforcement orders were a direct result of those choices by the Emersons.”

Nothing in the agreement between the county and the Emersons should be construed as a waiver of permit requirements, Price Johnson said.

“I hope the next steps can be completed without further drama and we can all move on,” Price Johnson said.

Emerson, too, wants to move on.

“A lot of errors were made on both sides,” Emerson said. “I have been trying to push back against the abuse of power and wrongful actions by government, so getting this out of the way will put me in a better position to advance the rights of property owners.”

On the eve of Election Day in November 2010, the Emersons sued her political opponent, John Dean, the incumbent county commissioner, saying he used his position to alert the county planning director and a building inspector to a construction project at the Emerson home.

That act, the Emersons claimed, was intended to kill her political campaign.

The Emersons, however, had not applied for building permits to make improvements to their property, even though they had been told that any development would require approval by the Island County Planning Department. County officials maintained that the Emersons’ property includes a wetlands area, considered sensitive under state environmental laws.

Emerson, a Republican, defeated Dean, a Democrat. At the time the lawsuit was filed, Emerson said that her complaint was with two county employees and Dean, and that she didn’t want to cost county taxpayers any money. In January 2011, however, her attorney at that time amended the complaint to include Island County as a party in the suit. Later that year, an Island County Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, as well as an appeal.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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