Oso landowner drove a hard bargain after mudslide

OSO — With Darrington cut off after the Oso mudslide and the state desperate to help, a pair of business partners successfully demanded more than $80,000 to allow cars and trucks to drive along a power-line access road on their undeveloped land, records show.

One of the men figured that charging the state Department of Transportation was the only shot at recovering losses he expected from the March 22 mudslide.

He initially demanded $180,000 just for access to the land. Most property owners along the route were paid $500.

The state ultimately cut an $85,000 check to Robert Tager of Lynnwood. His business partner, Grant Walsh of Stanwood, negotiated the deal.

“Even though none of us feel good about this parcel, we need to honor our commitment,” one transportation official wrote in a May email as the check was being prepared.

In another email, a top state real estate manager concluded: “Market values do not support the settlement. However, the owners are very firm in their demand.”

The money was paid largely because the property owners had time on their side and the state didn’t.

A mile-long stretch of Highway 530 connecting Arlington to Darrington was covered with mud and debris 50 feet deep in some places. To the south was the private Seattle City Light access road that could be quickly re-engineered as a stopgap answer. Access to Tager’s property was necessary for the alternative route.

A month after the slide, there was a growing sense of anxiety that the missing link of Highway 530 would cost mill jobs that are the backbone of Darrington’s economy. There also were fears of isolation during medical emergencies and frustration over the long, arduous detour through Skagit County.

The slide separated families. Some teachers who lived west of the slide stayed with friends in Darrington during the school week while workers at Boeing and elsewhere bunked in temporary quarters closer to their jobs.

Using state public records laws, The Herald recently obtained documents about the route negotiations. In keeping with its policies, the state alerted those it had negotiated with regarding the newspaper’s interest and their right to potentially resist release of the records in court.

Tager didn’t return two phone calls. Walsh declined comment Tuesday, referring all questions to state transportation officials.

The records speak for themselves, state officials say.

“Our priority was reconnecting the communities, and doing it in a pretty timely fashion,” said Travis Phelps, a transportation department spokesman.

The state looked at options. The power-line access road presented the quickest detour around the buried highway.

“The road was already there. It was already built. There had been some improvements made by other agencies,” Phelps said.

During search and recovery operations, Snohomish County had used emergency authority to make improvements along the power-line access road within the City Light right of way, county spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said. The road was used to move searchers and heavy equipment into position. Forty-three people died in the slide; roughly a dozen were rescued.

The state on April 29 opened the access road to limited traffic. The one-lane, two-mile route skirted the southern lips of the debris field. To make that possible, the state first had to negotiate easements with roughly a dozen property owners.

Rumors circulated and people seethed in Darrington in late April when word spread that there was a holdout. There were bitter words when people heard somebody had been paid tens of thousands of dollars for the temporary easement on an existing road across undeveloped timberland.

Among the documents the state released about the negotiation were internal emails, memos and a diary kept by a state real estate negotiator.

The state initially offered Tager up to $1,000 for temporary right-of-way access along the route.

“Mr. Tager thought what we were asking for seemed reasonable,” transportation department real estate agent David Narvaez wrote after an April 18 meeting with Tager and Walsh.

While Tager’s name was on the deed, Walsh held the promissory note on the property. Narvaez was told that Tager owed Walsh a substantial sum. Tager deferred to Walsh.

Walsh demanded $180,000.

“He said it was a great deal and I should accept it now and move on,” Narvaez wrote.

Walsh said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had denied them compensation because there was no loss of life and no buildings were damaged on the undeveloped land.

He mentioned his fear that Snohomish County would make the property un-buildable, and therefore useless, by imposing new land-use restrictions, Narvaez wrote. County records do not list the property as having been destroyed, as has happened with several other slide-area parcels, including the entire Steelhead Haven neighborhood that was buried by the slide.

The Tager property, two parcels of about 55 acres in all, was purchased for $94,000 in 1993. It is now timberland and zoned to allow homes on a minimum of five acres, records show.

Hal Wolfe, the regional real estate manager for the transportation department, participated in the April 18 negotiation by telephone. Narvaez was with Walsh.

Walsh told Wolfe the state must pay $180,000 “or we must hit the road.” Then Walsh hung up on him, according to the meeting notes.

After that, according to Narvaez, Walsh then took him out to his garage to show him a pricey sports car, telling him, “Dave, it is not about the money. … See we have money,” the meeting notes said.

The state looked for alternative routes to bypass the Tager property. Transportation staff crunched numbers but determined the options would be too expensive, would interfere with rebuilding Highway 530 and delay the project. The tally: $915,000 in extra costs and a 15-day delay in reconnecting Darrington. They also calculated at $100,000 the added economic impact a delay would cost people living in Darrington.

The state also considered using condemnation through the state’s right of eminent domain, but that wasn’t an option because the legal battle would take a minimum of four months.

Top transportation department officials decided there was little choice. They authorized up to $100,000 to cut the deal “due to the immediacy of the need and the importance of this parcel,” Wolfe wrote.

Wolfe reached the $85,000 agreement on April 24, two days after President Barack Obama visited the Stillaguamish Valley, where he praised people for how they’d pulled together in adversity. By then, the state had calculated the actual value of access to Tager’s property was $1,300. The remaining $83,700 of the settlement was based on a formula that Walsh had proposed. He suggested the state pay a toll per vehicle based on an estimate of 2,250 cars crossing the land each day. The payment works out to $16,875 a month through the end of September.

In a memo detailing the negotiations, state officials worried that other property owners in the slide area would catch wind of the deal reached with Tager and Walsh.

“The benefits of using the Tager route are considered to outweigh the risks,” Wolfe wrote.

But eventually people did find out.

Arlington attorney Ben Wells represents two families who signed right-of-way easement agreements. The Oso resident also has offered advice to two others who willingly entered agreements with the state to restore access.

“My clients were absolutely adamant that this agreement be entered into immediately,” Wells said. “There were thousands of people to their east who needed to get through. … The money wasn’t even an issue. They were wanting to sign before I could even protect their legal interests.

“The bottom line is they wanted this done so they could get the road open,” he said.

The state agreed to pay one of his clients $500 up front and pledged to come back with “a fair and reasonable offer” later, Wells said.

“When we did that I knew that we were giving up some legal leverage, but we were assured that the state is going to deal with us in good faith. They offered us an additional $100,” he said. “I’m not saying we want $85,000, but $100?”

Wells said it just doesn’t seem right.

His clients, who were offered an additional $100, live near the edge of the slide, Wells said. There are days when there is around-the-clock noise and dust, as well lost privacy.

“My dad used to say, two wrongs don’t make a right,” Wells said. “They turn around to use the same weapons against these folks that were used against them. It’s so ironic. I keep coming up with the adage, ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’”

Although traffic is now being routed along a repaired section of Highway 530, the access road will be needed all summer, including during planned road closures.

The contract says that if the state needs to continue using Tager’s land after September, he will be paid close to $17,000 a month more.

Phelps said state transportation officials are hopeful that work on the highway will be completed before that is necessary.

“At this point it looks like we are on track,” he said.

Scott North: 425-339-3431, north@heraldnet.com.

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