County removes squatters from new park, but cleanup still remains

SULTAN — Two remaining squatters were removed from a stretch of land slated for a new county park along the Skykomish River last week, but cleanup of the once junk-piled spot just south of Sultan and U.S. 2 could be delayed.

Snohomish County had hoped to finish the work needed to open a camping area with river access this summer. Now, Steelhead County Park is on the back burner.

Resources have been diverted to Oso and Darrington in the aftermath of the March 22 mudslide, said County Parks Director Tom Teigen. He expects crews to work on environmental cleanup for Steelhead County Park as time allows.

Once cleanup is complete, Teigen said, it won’t take long before the park is open to campers. People can access the area along the river now, but camping is not allowed.

The county would like to purchase three more properties to complete the park. It has been buying up land there for some 20 years. In 2007, $600,000 was dedicated to buy up about 45 properties in the Skyview Tracts subdivision. Tax collection through the county Conservation Futures Program paid for the purchases.

The spot has long been a problem for the city of Sultan and Snohomish County.

In 2006, the county targeted the area during an aggressive crackdown on illegal junkyards. Officials said lots littered with scrap vehicles were safety and environmental hazards. The county has since removed hundreds of tons of junk from that area, though some remains.

Meanwhile, homeless people lived in shantytowns along the river.

“We happen to be a stop off for the ‘gypsy’ travelers,” said Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick, who is running for county executive. “It was a real issue.”

Eslick said drugs and alcohol use ran rampant. Inhabitants spilled into the city’s business district, creating problems for store owners, she said. Frequent fights drained city resources.

When the area flooded, Eslick said, human feces from the campers contaminated the water. Fire and rescue teams had to wade through the waste to help the people there, the mayor said.

“It was gross, gross, gross,” she said.

Because the park property is in the river’s floodway, it is expected to be used seasonally. No permanent structures are planned.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office for several years has been working with the city and local nonprofits to remove the squatters. The plan was to connect people to social services, Eslick said. The campers were told they had to move, sign up for help — or go to jail. Eslick said most took the opportunity, going to substance abuse treatment or getting jobs.

“There were some success stories,” she said.

Earlier this month, the sheriff’s office told the two remaining men on the property they had to go.

“These two fellows had all the chances in the world,” Eslick said.

One man was taken to jail on a warrant, and the other was arrested for trespassing last week, the mayor said.

“Now it’s really crucial that the county gets in there and cleans up the hazardous waste,” Eslick said.

She hopes the county starts developing the property for overnight camping and recreation as soon as possible.

“It’s right on the river, so it’s beautiful,” Eslick said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous. We need to have access for everyone.”

Teigen said several government agencies would need to sign off on the park once cleanup is complete. Opening the park for seasonal camping and fishing, he said, is an important economic driver for Sultan and the Sky Valley.

The county expects to put in fencing and port-a-potties after the cleanup. That should expedite the opening, Teigen said.

“We’d love to get it open as soon as we can,” he said. “There’s a lot of great riverfront there.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.

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