A property is seen in the Mount Index Riversites community Dec. 1. Electricity no longer runs to some properties in the private neighborhood, but squatters have brought in generators to power appliances and lights. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

A property is seen in the Mount Index Riversites community Dec. 1. Electricity no longer runs to some properties in the private neighborhood, but squatters have brought in generators to power appliances and lights. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Private Skykomish community struggles with drugs, squatters

INDEX — For more than half a century, the private community called Mount Index Riversites has offered a scenic getaway off U.S. 2 along the South Fork Skykomish River.

Head toward the Lake Serene trailhead, and then keep going down the gravel U.S. Forest Service road.

Most folks would rather you didn’t, though. They move out here for the nature and seclusion, and they have their reasons to get out of town and into the woods.

Earlier this year, a locked gate was installed at the entrance to the Riversites. Those who support the gate say it helps combat drug trafficking and squatters, two concerns that also have frustrated police. Others say the gate infringes on their property rights. The Forest Service wants the gate removed, saying it blocks public access to federal land.

In this beautiful place, there are lots of opinions and not much common ground.

Disaster and division

About two dozen people, mostly seniors, live at the Riversites full time. Hundreds of other lots are used for vacation and weekend homes and camping; and some remain unbuildable swamp.

The governing board is the Mount Index Riversites Community Club.

Three years ago, a mudslide washed out the main road uphill. The route remains impassable at that point. A new bridge was built to access the other side. The divisions from the mudslide remain both physical and emotional, and there’s newly added aggravation.

Over the past year and a half, a handful of people with criminal history have moved in. A similar story has been repeated around Snohomish County as heroin use and homelessness have spread into the suburbs and small towns. Sheriff’s deputies and the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force have gotten to know plenty of the Riversites residents on a first-name basis.

Pat Slack, the task force commander, says the neighborhood is at a tipping point. The squatters are scaring people off, and others are so frustrated they might give up.

At the same time, some property owners — those who are opposed to the gate — deny that drugs and squatting are issues here.

Peace and property lines

Ellie Anderson’s one-bedroom house overlooks the river. The walls are covered in paintings of fish, waterfowl and, in her words, “other mountain-type stuff.” She bought the property in the early 1960s.

She was living in Ballard then, when she first pulled onto Mount Index River Road.

“It took away the stress,” she said. “You could feel it, when you came up, just leave your body.”

After a lot of weekend camping at the Riversites, she moved in full time when her son was grown. Now, one set of neighbors has signs posted on their fence: “Meth Free Zone.”

Not far from here are tiny lots covered in makeshift sheds and campers, where people sleep under decks and string bare light bulbs on metal rods over piles of debris. Dented, rusted cars are draped in tarps and missing doors and windows.

Anderson, a past Riversites board member, owns additional lots uphill in an undeveloped area near the slide. She won’t let her nephews camp there anymore. She says people creep through the woods at night.

A main road winds through the area. Depending on the map, it’s called Mount Index River Road, Mount Index Road or Forest Service Road 6020. The Forest Service owns the route from U.S. 2 past the Lake Serene and Bridal Veil Falls trailhead, to the archway that reads “Mt. Index Riversites.” That’s near the new gate. The Forest Service, and by extension the public, is supposed to be able to access the rest of the road, through and beyond the Riversites, under an easement.

That arrangement has been in place for 60 years. Court papers make clear that disagreements about the road go back about as far. Furthermore, not all of the properties accessed by that road fall within the Riversites boundaries. That adds another layer of complexity.

Mat Williams is a board member who oversees road maintenance for about 166 properties below the slide. He and his wife have owned land here for nearly three decades.

Williams was fed up and getting ready to put his house on the market when he reached out to Slack, the police commander, last year. He mentioned to Slack the possibility of adding a gate that could be purchased for around $16,000 from Riversites membership fees.

Slack suggested the board also add surveillance cameras, which now record everyone who comes or goes. The footage has proved useful to investigators.

The cameras capture “a tremendous amount of activity in the night,” Williams said.

“There’s no silver bullet to stop anything anymore, but there are silver BBs,” Slack said. “The gate is a silver BB. The cameras are another silver BB.”

Counterclaims and stalemate

The situation with the gate is complicated, though. It went into full-time use this spring.

The entrance code was provided to the Forest Service, police and firefighters. It also was posted at the location to give everyone time to adjust. According to Williams, all property owners were offered the code and electronic “clickers” similar to garage door openers.

The Forest Service says the gate needs to go. Williams argues that the Forest Service has its own gate uphill blocking public access.

Disagreements about the management of the Riversites and the roads have landed in court more than once.

In one past lawsuit among property owners, more than 50 people submitted statements to the court for consideration. The county judge said the Riversites could erect a gate on any road that might pose a danger to drivers.

Some property owners say the ruling does not apply to the entrance gate.

Dan Harrison has used his land here for storage and camping since 1985, though he lives in Kirkland. He says he might have been OK with the gate, if the board had been more transparent about its plans. The road to his lot is blocked because of its proximity to the mudslide, a decision he also disputes.

Harrison says any criminal activity should be addressed by deputies, not gates.

Retired carpenter Mike Kelly has kept acreage outside the Riversites boundaries for nearly six decades. Kelly, a former board president, was 9 years old when he first visited the area. He says he made his first dollar building stairs for the original land owner. Kelly doesn’t come up as much anymore, mostly staying in Everett. He says the gate was “bootlegged” out of paranoia and violates his rights.

Kelly refused to sign the paperwork for a clicker. He uses the publicly posted code.

The board and Kelly are in an ongoing lawsuit. The board says he owes about $4,000 in road maintenance fees, which he denies. He in turn has accused the board of slander and defamation.

Kelly alleges that claims of drug activity at the Riversites are a “fabricated excuse to put the gate in.” He also didn’t appreciate deputies telling him that his outlook was part of the problem.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has maintained that the code should stay posted. Board members feel that defeats the purpose of the gate.

The Forest Service recently sent a letter saying the gate had to be gone by the end of November. The gate didn’t come down. The board and the Forest Service also have a contract, which is up for renegotiation, that covers road use and maintenance.

The board members won’t sign the latest draft because of the restrictions it places on gates.

“I’m not going to live with a gate you have to post the code on,” Williams said. “That’s where we are right now, is a stalemate.”

Snohomish County government also got involved.

Ombudsman Jill McKinnie listened to the neighbors and convened a meeting with police and the Forest Service, which the board members were not allowed to attend. McKinnie determined the county didn’t have jurisdiction over the gate outside of the courts and law enforcement.

She was told all the sides will keep talking.

Wires and warrants

One of the locals is a felon who has been living in an RV. His generators run around-the-clock and there’s no running water unless you count the pump in the creek, according to the neighbors.

The man was arrested in August, accused of dealing drugs and also sawing through the Riversites gate. The cameras helped identify the suspect. Deputies allegedly found a gun and five ounces of methamphetamine where he’d been staying.

A few weeks back, someone else damaged the cameras around the gate.

Another sometimes-resident is a self-described marijuana farmer who was convicted of DUI in Alaska after driving into the governor’s mansion. That man has been accused by authorities of using a loudspeaker to blare an air raid siren to annoy his neighbors. His power was cut off awhile ago due to unsafe wiring.

In Index and many communities, drug problems can’t be solved by police alone, Slack said. Addiction and homelessness are not criminal activities, but squatting prompts concerns about sewer, garbage and noise. Deputies partner with code enforcement, utilities and other agencies.

In addition, the Riversites is not ideal for drug investigations, Slack said. It’s difficult to move about unannounced with one main road, mostly hilly woods and limited cellphone service. Neighbors use a phone tree and a Facebook tree.

As for the abandoned cars, the tow companies won’t go up there anymore without law enforcement present, Williams said.

Seven cars, trucks and motorcycles were towed in a single day this summer from the roadside along one property. Several of the vehicles were being used as sleeping quarters. The owner of the property told Slack the people staying there don’t have her permission, but evicting them would be too expensive.

Earlier this month, the familiar sight of Slack’s undercover Jeep Cherokee was enough to send a skinny woman with a warrant running. Her companion stayed behind, a man with blue eyes and a wispy goatee. He wore track pants sagging below his bottom, and work boots. Before being patted down, he pulled a sharp-tipped screwdriver from his pocket, and claimed he was returning it to a neighbor.

The young woman was arrested, though she snapped her teeth and kicked and wrestled to get away. She is known to use heroin and meth.

Moments later, her stepmother caught wind of what happened and came up the road.

Slack promised he’d make sure the young woman was offered help at the jail with getting clean. He made the call as he left the Riversites and headed westbound on U.S. 2.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rikkiking.

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