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No decision yet in Mukai appeals case argued last week

A group of islanders argued in the state Court of Appeals last week that they are the rightful leaders of the nonprofit that owns the Mukai farmhouse and garden, hoping to see the court overturn a lower court’s decision and grant them control of the historic property.

While the three-judge appeals court panel has not yet issued a decision, Lynn Greiner, an attorney for the group, said she felt good about the hearing and was especially glad to learn that the current board of Island Landmarks, the nonprofit that owns the house, will not sell the property before a ruling in the appeal.

Island Landmarks officials said last month that a sale of the house to an undisclosed party was pending. But Nelson Happy, an Island Landmarks board member and the husband of Mary Matthews, the nonprofit’s director, said in court last week that they will not complete the transaction until after a court decision. The couple recently sold the adjacent fruit barrelling plant, which they owned personally.

“The good news from our perspective is we stopped the sale (of the house),” Greiner said. “The bottom line for us is that the sale won’t happen, at least for now.”

Meanwhile Bob Krinsky, a lawyer for Island Landmarks, said Happy, who is also an attorney and argued in court last week, represented the organization well. While he couldn’t predict the appeals court’s decision, he believed the law was clearly on Island Landmarks’ side, he said.

“Our approach to this has been very much legal in the sense that the issue that has been at the forefront of this case is who is the governing body, and this election was not properly held,” he said.

Last November, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that the group of island activists that would later call itself the Friends of Mukai did not lawfully execute a takeover of Island Landmarks. Since then, the historic property and the dispute over who controls it has continued to garner regional attention. Several groups and agencies have spoken out about their concerns regarding the property, which many say has fallen into disrepair and has rarely been open to the public since Island Landmarks purchased it in 2000. Four local, state and national agencies filed a brief in the lawsuit, arguing that the Vashon group is in the right and should have control of the organization — a brief that was ultimately denied by the court.

The islanders’ attempt to take control of Island Landmarks began in spring of 2012, when the group, led by Glenda Pearson, held a special meeting where several who believed they were new members of Island Landmarks — enlisted without the organization’s knowledge — elected a new slate of officers and ousted Matthews and her board. However, when Matthews refused to give up control of the nonprofit, saying the coup wasn’t legal, the islanders filed suit.

A superior court judge ultimately sided with Matthews and her board, ruling that the meeting called by the Vashon group and the subsequent election were not carried out exactly per the organization’s bylaws and were therefore invalid — a decision the Vashon group appealed.

In a packed Seattle courtroom on Tuesday, Nov. 19, Seattle lawyer David Brenner argued for the Vashon group, which last month also put forward an emergency motion to stop the surprise sale of the farmhouse.

Greiner said the three appeals court judges — Ronald Cox, Linda Lau and Michael Spearman — peppered each side with questions, largely focusing on issues surrounding the special meeting that was called for the election. Brenner argued that the meeting and subsequent election were, in fact, carried out properly, and islanders should currently be sitting on the Island Landmarks board.

“We think they understood our position,” she said.

The panel decided the motion for an injunction would not be argued after Happy said the sale would not go through before it issued a ruling.

Neither Matthews nor Happy returned calls from The Beachcomber. Krinsky said that while the couple has been mostly quiet in the case, they still believe the Friends of Mukai have misrepresented facts surrounding Island Landmarks and its care of the property. He wasn’t able to comment on the pending sale of the property, which he said wasn’t a part of the appeal.

“The other side has, from the outset, made this a quest to damage unsuccessfully the reputation of two people who have devoted years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintaining Mukai. There would be no Mukai without Mary and Nelson,” he said.

Neither Krinsky nor Greiner knew when the court might issue a decision.

“It could be days or weeks,” Greiner said.

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