How Property Rights Can Become Property Wrongs
by Sandra Robson
Sandra Robson moved to Whatcom County from California about four years ago. She is passionate about protecting and preserving the environment we all enjoy and need. She is actively engaged in educating herself and others about all things Gateway Pacific Terminal.
Elections are coming up this November so it’s a good time to remind ourselves that history has a way of repeating itself. As we roil from our nation’s recent devastating economic downturn, Whatcom County’s sordid property rights groups’ history from the 1990s seems to be working its way around again, right under our noses. Tensions in Whatcom accelerated at that time into hair-raising events. Some of the highlights were militia member arrests; an armed stand-off on the Lummi Reservation between Lummi police and Whatcom sheriff’s deputies at a Lummi Nation well; harassment and assault of several Native American youths in Ferndale; and a cross-burning just outside Lynden at a migrant-labor camp.
Property rights groups’ leaders have, to their own advantage, catalyzed the increasing frustration and alienation of some property owners by what they view as the government’s over-regulation. With the backdrop of an economy that went belly-up in 2008 and stayed that way until a year or so ago, these leaders know how to stir up their members’ uber-zealotry whether for gun rights or against any kind of taxes or environmental regulations. Thus you have quite a combustible energy which property rights leaders can use to fire up their devoted followers.
For a review, let’s rewind back to 1990, when due to Washington state’s intense growth over many decades, much of which was in unincorporated areas, and in order to ensure that communities plan intelligently and consider the impacts from that growth, the Washington State Legislature adopted the Growth Management Act (GMA),1 which requires state and local governments to manage Washington’s growth. The GMA was adopted because “the legislature finds that uncoordinated and unplanned growth, together with a lack of common goals expressing the public’s interest in the conservation and the wise use of our lands, pose a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of this state.” The GMA designated and sought to protect critical areas such as wetlands, aquifers, and habitat; sought to conserve resource lands, like forestry, agriculture, and mineral resources; sought to protect air quality and water supply and quality; sought to reduce sprawl by reducing inappropriate conversion of undeveloped land into low-density development while also encouraging urban growth; sought to provide open space and recreation; and sought to ensure public services and facilities necessary to support development. The Whatcom Planning and Development Services website explains that Whatcom County’s Critical Areas are environmentally sensitive natural resources that have been designated for protection and management in accordance with GMA requirements, and that the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) applies to geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, wetlands, and fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas.
A Costly Non-Compliant County
Our county is primarily not in compliance with the GMA, going on two decades now, due to the stranglehold by enough of a majority of County Council members elected over the years, who cater to their property rights and development special interests. Former Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson said something during his mayoral tenure back in an August 7, 1996, Seattle Times article about the County Council’s failure to comply with the GMA, that seemed to hit the nail on the head, and still rings as true today as it did then. He said, “Those politicians have given a measure of aid and comfort to those who would violate the law in order to pursue their agenda.”
The chokehold on the GMA began after a County Council coup d’etat in the 1993 election, by the Keystone Forum PAC-backed slate of County Council candidates, Ward Nelson, Alvin Starkenburg, Robert Imof, and Marlene Dawson, who were elected to the County Council. Locals Bill Geyer, a private land use planner and former director of planning and development for city of Bellingham; Art Castle, Executive VP of the Building Industry Association of Washington in 1993 and presently; and Bruce Ayers, a land surveying consultant, had registered the Keystone Forum PAC in June 1993. All three men were heavily involved with the local property rights group, CLUE, the Coalition for Land Use Education, which filed as a non-profit corporation in May 1992. Geyer and Castle were both on the original CLUE board of directors; Ayers was the Secretary for CLUE. Also, in the 1993 election, Ayers, backed by his own personal Keystone PAC, was elected to the Bellingham City Council, even though he had received a stern warning from the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) for a questionable mailer sent out to absentee voters by his campaign, which reportedly contained misleading Bellingham tax information. The warning to Ayers from the PDC: in the future make sure the statements he would make and literature he would have published is factual. Case closed.2
On May 26, 1992, the County Council had approved the County Planning Commission-recommended Critical Areas Ordinance, CAO (92-032). A flurry of tense County Council meetings ensued, with both sides on the referendum generating massive attendance. In November 1992, the county auditor validated the needed signatures on a citizen petition that had been brought forth earlier which would remove many protections to critical areas from the original CAO. It was put on the ballot as Referendum 92-3, and on November 2, 1993, a majority voted to support the referendum version of the CAO. But eventually, the referendum process was appealed to the Growth Hearings Board which ruled in June 1994 that the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) must be applied to the amended CAO and ruled the Referendum process didn’t comply with the public participation level required by GMA, and remanded the CAO back to the county for compliance. Ultimately, it went to the State Supreme Court, which rejected the Referendum in December 1994. Whatcom County established interim urban growth areas (IUGA) and established a new interim CAO — and anyone following county politics the last 20 years knows that GMA/land use issues have pretty much been a cluster-fiasco ever since, because our county council has been comprised of enough of a majority of property rights sympathizers that they have managed to keep our county primarily in non-compliance with the GMA. That non-compliance has cost county taxpayers over $100,000 in terms of legal challenges, while also eschewing needed sensitive land protections and water supply/quality protections intended by the GMA.
Wise Use Gets a CLUE
The term “wise use” found in the GMA language, was also used by the founders of what was known as the Wise Use movement. Founded in 1988, it arose from opposition to the environmental movement and is viewed by critics as anti-environmentalist. Wise Use leaders purported that environmental regulations vanquish private property rights. Powerful political forces masked in seemingly constructive organizations like the Washington State Farm Bureau, the Building Industry Association of Washington, and the Washington Realtors Association (including each group’s local level organizations), fund and interact with property rights groups. They garner and grow a network of support for projects and industries; work to lessen or remove environmental regulations; influence legislation; and support and fund political candidates. These powerful organizations use property rights front groups to do much of their work for them—the message is better received and more potent coming from ostensibly grass-roots property rights groups.
Property rights groups have large numbers of members from many states, and those groups seem to mix well and share conservative ideologies with gun rights groups and ultra-conservative, limited government groups like the Tea Party; so by intermingling those kinds of groups, then combined, they can become more powerful. Property rights group leaders paint environmentalists, environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, and the governmental agencies tasked with overseeing environmental protection regulations as evil, and the regulatory red tape of those agencies as harming small property owners.
Another key figure in the local Wise Use group, CLUE, which was funded by a collection of development, real estate, and construction interests, was one of the co-founders of that group, Skip Richards. Richards lives in Whatcom County and has still managed to involve himself in our county’s property and water issues, appearing at various political, property rights and water rights-related events.
In an October 30, 1996, Anacortes American article, staff writer Nancy Walbeck, wrote that Richards has a history of fighting Whatcom County’s attempts to comply with our state’s GMA. The article also talked about Richards, who in 1996 was running against incumbent Senator Harriet Spanel for the 40th District state senate seat, and referenced the August 7, 1996, Seattle Times article that reported Richards’ CLUE group hosted Militia of Montana (MOM) speakers and provided a venue for the Montana group’s literature. Richards told the Anacortes American in that article that he was no longer involved with CLUE and said he did not provide support for MOM.
Author and Public Good Project Director, Jay Taber, wrote a May 16, 2013 article for International Cry magazine3 spotlighting Skip Richards, in which Taber pointed out that now with the availability of information on the internet, people have changed tactics. Those whose past covert careers were built on “malicious harassment, through mystifying mental makeovers… now seek overt careers in country club speaking tours.” Taber’s reference to country club speaking tours was the Republican Women of Whatcom County’s May 28, 2013, luncheon held at the Bellingham Golf and Country Club, which featured Richards as speaker. In his article, Taber surmised, “As a former (and perhaps current) Building Industry Association agent provocateur, he [Richards] is likely positioning himself to lead the 2013 hate campaign against tribal sovereignty and Growth Management water resource planning by appealing to the Tea Party wing of the GOP.”
The August 7, 1996, Seattle Times article4 also reported on the growing distaste for government in Whatcom County. That growing distaste had become newsworthy enough to make its way to The Seattle Times because on July 27, 1996, eight individuals (four in Bellingham/Whatcom County—four from Seattle) with ties to militias, had been arrested by the Department of Justice, on illegal weapons and bomb-making charges. It was reported that these eight taught each other how to make pipe bombs in preparation for a confrontation with the U.S. government and/or the United Nations.
The Bellingham website NWCitizen published an article on October 6, 19965 which reported that CLUE’s meetings at local Whatcom County Grange halls had hosted speakers who warned of efforts to establish a “New World Order,” and passed out MOM literature. The article said CLUE’s newsletter had also included militia information. The NWCitizen story also said Kathy Sutter, a County Councilmember back in 1996, and a CLUE Board Member, was quoted in August 1996 in the Portland Oregonian, saying that connections between the Wise Use movement and militias were a “matter of degrees.” Did Sutter’s vague quantitative analysis of the militia connections to local property rights groups allay people’s fears? The NWCitizen article went on to say that there was no direct evidence which clearly linked CLUE to militia groups. The August 1996 Seattle Times article had said that CLUE founder Skip Richards acknowledged working with militia members, but defended it saying, “I was just playing interest-group politics.”
Orcas and Other Enemies of Property Rights
Fast-forward now to present, and the cause these amalgamated property rights/Constitution-hugging/Tea Party/liberty-loving Libertarians/government-hating/gun-rights-blazing die-hards have radar-locked onto is the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT). Their enemies are environmentalists, environmental groups, government regulating agencies, our state Governor, the Lummi Nation and other Native American tribes, and any Endangered Species like our beloved Orcas, Chinook Salmon, and others that are federally protected, which any one or more of, could stand in the way of the GPT project. Some of the weapons these property rights groups’ foot soldiers and their commanders offensively wield are disinformation, intimidation, pressuring elected officials, monetary contributions to influence elections, legal challenges to de-list Endangered Species related to the GPT project, and legal challenges attempting to strip the Lummi Nation of their sovereign tribal rights.
In April of this year, the Citizens for Equal Rights Alliance (CERA) and the Citizens Equal Rights Foundation (CERF) organizations held a conference at the Bellingham Lakeway Inn. CERA/CERF are sister organizations that are like the kissing-cousins of property rights groups, although their message is branded with a special anti-Native American flavor. Among the conference attendees were: property rights activist (and never one to turn down an invitation to a party), Skip Richards; Tom Williams of Lynden who is a CERA board member and a Minuteman Civil Defense Corps member (although it should be noted that Williams’ long-haired dachshund named Vigilante, did not attend the conference with him); and Sandy Point resident and former County Councilmember, Marlene Dawson, who has worked tirelessly for the last two decades trying to erase the Lummi Nation’s sovereignty and tribal rights.
CERA/CERF flies under the supposed banner of “equal rights,” yet according to an April 26, 2013, article written by Chuck Tanner for Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR), and his blog story on the conference, these groups “seek to impose state and local jurisdiction on tribal communities — ultimately hoping to erase treaty rights and tribal sovereignty from the landscape.”
Tanner further wrote, “The Bellingham event demonstrated the vicious and bigoted nature of this social movement. Phillip Brendale, an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Tribe active with anti-Indian groups for years, urged attendees to reach out to railway and coal companies involved in the Gateway Pacific Terminal (near Cherry Point in the Lummi Nation’s usual and accustomed fishing places) to fund a lawsuit aimed at overturning treaty fishing rights. Brendale calls for mobilizing anti-treaty ideas found in federal court rulings as a weapon against tribes: ‘We have at our disposal what we need — the weapon, the means, the opportunity and the financial support to take these tribes down. Brendale put forward his state non-profit as a conduit for monies that would allow ‘these companies to finance a winning case without getting their corporate hands dirty.’ Brendale did not appear to currently have relationships with these companies.” Also noteworthy, is the fact that Brendale’s wife, Sandi Brendale, is the Chairwoman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Washington (RLCWA).6
Another example of audience-inciting was the October 2011 Gateway Pacific Forum hosted by the conservative Northwest Business Club and the Whatcom County chapter of Citizens Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR), and emceed by Lynden resident and long-time property rights espouser, Ron Reimer, who is heavily involved with CAPR, owns a local excavating business, and who some theorize as one of the authors of the Whatcom Excavator blog, a Tea Party and property rights oriented blog whose authors continue to cloak themselves in anonymity. Videos of this forum posted on the Northwest Business Club’s website (which have since been removed) that were reviewed, showed Reimer working the audience into a froth, at one point likening the local environmental organization, RE Sources, to Nazis reporting, referring to RE Sources’ routine checks on property owners and farmers to ensure pollution protections are being met. Reimer waved a piece of paper in his hand that he said contained a list of 50 environmental organizations, which in his mind are evil enemies of property owners. Property rights groups’ leaders strive to cause their followers to see red, when they hear the word green.
The forum audience included farmers, local politicians including Ferndale Mayor Jensen, some of the County Planning Commission members, and more. The featured panel speakers included; Republican Senator Doug Ericksen who was also running for Whatcom County Executive at the time; Washington state Republican congressional candidate during 2011 and 2012 John Koster who made headlines during his candidacy for saying “the rape thing” is not a good enough reason for a woman to have an abortion; former Northwest Central Labor Council President and co-founder of Northwest Jobs Alliance Dave Warren; Dick Donahue a financial advisor who hosts a radio show on KGMI; Ferndale resident Perry Eskridge, a land use attorney who is the Director of Governmental Affairs (AKA lobbyist) for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors; and Steve Neugebauer. a hydrogeologist who according to an October 11, 2011, article in the Whidbey News-Times is known for his questionable wetland science presentations for property rights groups, and for fighting the Washington state Department of Ecology. Both county and state specialists criticized his wetland study referred to in the article.7
50 Organizations Against Jobs, People and Prosperity?
Local Birch Bay real estate agent, Mike Kent, while not seated at the panel table, spoke from the floor next to the audience, and was clearly orchestrated into the panel discussion. Kent said, “A lot of this is not about coal, with those 50 organizations. I believe, and I think Perry [Eskridge] will agree it’s about the jobs, because jobs bring people. And there are certain organizations, Futurewise, and others, I can go down the list, that if we were shipping medical supplies to 3rd world countries, they wouldn’t like the resulting jobs and influx of people and prosperity because then they’d have to share the area with more people.” Kent goes on to say that the people who oppose the terminal who were not attending the forum that day to learn more, “don’t want the truth because they are busy trying to convince your neighbors who are neutral to this point, to scare them into thinking this is bad environmentally, when in fact, this is bad because it might bring prosperity and more people to Whatcom County which they think they exclusively own and no one else has a right to share it … and it is pervasive.” That brought a large round of applause from the audience. This is typical of the anti-environmental propaganda that is being delivered to people through property rights groups like CAPR.
Many property rights groups’ members are rural working property owners who are worried over potentially increasing property taxes. They view environmental regulations as burdensome, and they feel in many instances, those regulations are not needed. Arguably, property rights groups use those actual concerns that people have, and prey upon them using their fear-mongering, anger-inciting tactics, then guide those heightened emotions toward government agencies and their workers, and environmental organizations and environmentalists.
An exemplar of this is a campaign that Freedom Foundation, a Washington state based conservative think tank is currently pushing. Freedom Foundation has a property rights arm and Glen Morgan is their property rights director whose job it is to lobby the Washington State Legislature; lobby citizens about property rights issues; and organize and motivate citizen groups. Advertised on Freedom Foundation’s website, is a program rolled out in June, called Whistleblower, which encourages state workers at Washington state government agencies to rat-out any supposed internal wrong-doings such as “inefficient government actions,” and report these to Freedom Foundation. Even without any actual reported wrong-doings, this whistleblower program sends an implied message to citizens that these things are happening right now, which can fuel the fires of distrust and anger toward our government.
The property rights movement can also be described as an Anti-Conservation movement. The Wisconsin Stewardship Network (WSN) explains some of the history of property rights: “Anti-Conservationism, as a movement, feeds off simple human emotions, some of which are universal, others uniquely American. Chief among the universal needs is basic survival, which under our economic system, equates with producing a product or supplying a service. Among the peculiarly American elements of anti-Conservationism is the deep-seated belief that this country was founded on and dedicated to the principle that: I can own private property and no one can tell me what I can and can not do with it. This ‘right to do as I please’ philosophy finds comfort in a sadly outdated attitude that our country is so big — so full of wide open spaces — that even if the consequences of today’s industrial and land use activities are profoundly negative, there will always be room and resources aplenty for tomorrow. This combination of emotional issues makes anti-Conservationism appealing to anyone whose land plans — from the dream retirement home, to a state-of-the-art hog finishing operation, to clear-cut logging — have been affected by some regulation or law. One anti-Conservationism tactic is to portray government restrictions on land as attacks on a citizen’s need and right to earn a living. This tactic has worked particularly well in the Pacific Northwest, where paper industry workers have been induced to side with their corporate employers against the ‘threat’ posed to the timber industry by Endangered Species Act protections afforded the Spotted Owl. This tactic, often referred to as ‘job blackmail,’ has been embraced by the tobacco industry to turn out bodies in opposition to proposals for greater regulation of tobacco.” 8
Doesn’t “job blackmail” sound very similar to the shrewdly crafted message the high- paid PR firms of SSA Marine, the company wanting to build and run the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) at Cherry Point, have been drumming into our heads for the last two years? Their messaging in their advertising has been if we don’t build the terminal here in Whatcom County we will lose the jobs promised by SSA, and those jobs will go to Canada. SSA is telling our county residents we will lose jobs that we don’t even already have. What about the vital jobs Whatcom County residents already have in the fishing and tourism industries, which stand to be adversely impacted by building and operating a 48 million ton coal terminal along the Salish Sea shoreline? Edelman PR, one of the public relations firms working for SSA on its GPT marketing, is so good at its job that it has many in our community fighting over jobs — jobs they do not already have — jobs they are told they will lose — jobs they are told even our nation will lose. That is the messaging being broadcast by SSA’s Edelman PR and their marketing mouthpieces, the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports (ANWJE), and their Facebook page and website.
Blame “Environmental Extremists”
Before the advent of social media used as a marketing tool, mailers were the norm. In June 1992, Skip Richards’ CLUE group mailed out 4,000 flyers calling for supporters to flood a crucial County Council meeting on the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) proposal. CLUE’s flyer alleged the council was violating residents’ rights in “favor of land-use extremists” and said the law could mean the “loss of all or part of your land to county regulation … with no compensation.” The flyer also warned of numerous harms, including property owners’ inability to do anything in buffer zones established by the regulations, and the flyer claimed, “Your children and grandchildren could be deprived of their future ability to own a home,” adding, “They may have to move away.” County Councilmember Dan Warner railed against the flyer, calling its claims “scurrilous lies.” Doesn’t CLUE’s fear-mongering flyer from 1992 sound very familiar, possibly like a page taken from ANWJE’s current playbook on GPT? Now, instead of CLUE circulating flyers, it’s ANWJE circulating its messaging for GPT on social media, on their website, and in editorials from various groups and individuals which it generated and fed to local newspapers. An example of this familiar fear-mongering messaging that ANWJE is circulating is that your children and your grandchildren will have to move away because they can’t find “family-wage jobs” here in Whatcom unless GPT is built — and the environmental extremists are to blame.9
One little-known additional note regarding the property rights infested GMA/CAO history here in Whatcom was this: According to the Public Good Project website, in May 1992, CLUE sponsored Chuck Cushman, AKA “Rent-A-Riot” (nick-named for his ability to incite audiences to the verge of “violent civil disobedience” according to the Wisconsin Stewardship Network) to come to Bellingham and Lynden to speak at two rallies, schooling the crowds on how they could derail Whatcom County’s temporary CAO, and to do what he does best, agitate crowds.
Cushman proudly touts his “Rent-A-Riot” nickname on his LinkedIn page. Cushman, a key player in the anti-conservation movement, is a combustible property rights pioneer who founded the National Inholders Association (which later became the American Land Rights Association in 1995 and is considered a Wise-Use group). CBS 60 Minutes came to the Lynden rally, which they taped and later aired as a segment in September 1992. Author Jay Taber wrote in his book, “Blind Spots: A Citizen’s Memoir,” that the 60 Minutes segment was about the industry-backed Wise-Use property rights movement and exposed the threats, intimidation, and sometimes, assaults against parents and community groups who raised concerns about water and air pollution in the United States Wise-Use movement provocateurs, Cushman and Skip Richards were also shown in the segment. The Bellingham Herald ran a story approximately 10 days after the rallies about the heated land-rights battle ratcheting up and the anti-regulation rage spreading in Whatcom, after Cushman’s CLUE-sponsored property rights rallies.
Tricks of the PR Trade
Now social media has replaced much of the mailers of the 1990s, and savvy PR firms use the internet’s social media platform to their clients’ full advantage. The ANWJE website was created in 2012 by employees at Edelman PR. One of those Edelman employees, Daniel Wood, a former technical project manager for Edelman, has the fact that he contributed to the creation of this supposedly benevolent grass-roots organization’s website, listed as an accomplishment on his resume on LinkedIn, under his Edelman PR work experience. ANWJE’s spokesperson is Lauri Hennessey, who is actually a VP of Edelman PR in Seattle and listed as such on Edelman’s website. Besides being quoted in our local newspapers as the spokesperson for ANWJE, Ms. Hennessey also testified at at least five of the EIS scoping hearings for GPT held in our state, and each time she spoke, she identified herself as representing ANWJE, never once mentioning that she just so happens to be a VP for Edelman PR, which is doing public relations work for SSA, the company wanting to build and operate GPT.
Vote Like Your Lives Depend On It
Edelman PR is expert in its strategic use of social media for their clients such as SSA Marine. By creating ANWJE’s website and Facebook page for SSA, Edelman provides a platform for advertising not only SSA’s needed message of “creating jobs,” but also enables them to tap into groups like Americans For Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and the National Association For Gun Rights, which all appear quite frequently on the “Like” pages of ANWJE’s Facebook Friends who click “Like” on ANWJE’s pro-coal terminal postings. These three groups share similar conservative, anti-government, anti-environment ideologies with property rights groups, so they fit well with Edelman’s marketing to particular demographics for GPT.
The upcoming November elections are hugely significant this year due to the fact that the County Council will be asked to vote on the pending permits for GPT after the Environmental Impact Statement is completed. So, as you are deciding whom to cast your vote for in the November elections for County Council, it’s important to consider what groups are endorsing candidates, and what messaging is being delivered by those groups, and then to investigate the actual powers, people, and funding behind those groups. Anti-conservation and anti-environmental regulation agendas can be artfully clad in seemingly sympathetic property rights groups’ ideals. Vote like your lives depend on it, because they very well may, with the threat of a 48 million ton coal terminal looming over §s.