Earlier this year, Whatcom County ended its decade-long legal battle to prevent Lummi Island resident Victoria Luhrs from building a shore defense work that is necessary to protect her home from the damage due to wave attack and shoreline erosion. And in so doing, the County backed off a harmful policy of valuing the potential benefits of erosion over the safety and property of its citizens.
The story starts almost 20 years ago when Vicki and her husband bought their dream property on Lummi Island. Their home sits above a coastal bluff with a breathtaking view of the water an Mount Baker. Vicki soon discovered that shoreline erosion was accelerating along the toe of the bluff. But that was not a big problem, because there was an easy and economical solution: place some large boulders in front of the bluff to dissipate the wave attack and protect her home and property.
This, however, is when the real nightmare began. In the late 1990s, Whatcom County adopted a hard line policy that the type of erosion occurring on Vicki’s property is part of a “natural process” that must be protected – even if it meant putting her life and home at risk. Thus, despite multiple expert reports (including reports from the County’s own geologist) concluding that it was only a matter of time before wave attack and shoreline erosion destroyed Vicki’s home, the County denied every request to protect her property. For nearly ten years, Vicki appealed these decisions through various courts and agencies.
During the course of litigation, Whatcom County made it clear that it would rather see Vicki’s property destroyed than allow her to place rocks at the base of her bluff. In fact, when asked by a judge from Washington’s Court of Appeals whether, when the day comes, Vicki will just have to watch her house go down the bluff, the County callously answered “That does happen, yes.” The County’s policy of valuing the potential environmental benefits of natural disasters over the lives and property of its own citizens is unacceptable . . . and unlawful.
You see, in Washington, every landowner has the right to protect his or her property from destructive natural forces. This is a simple proposition. And one that is guaranteed by our constitution. As another appellate judge told the County during arguments, if a revetment is necessary to protect Vicki’s property then “constitutionally you have to allow it,” otherwise, “you’re gonna have to pay her for her property.”
In January, Whatcom County gave up its fight and issued Vicki the necessary permits to construct her protective revetment. Earlier this month, the revetment was installed at the base of Vicki’s bluff, protecting her home from the threat of wave erosion. The bureaucratic nightmare that she has been living for the past decade is finally over and Vicki can rest assured that her home will not fall down the bluff during the next storm.
This struggle should serve to caution other cities or counties considering a similar, hard-line “environment over people” policy: you are free make endless pronouncements about what you want to do with other people’s property, but you cannot not strip the landowners of their fundamental rights.