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4Culture asks AG to intervene to protect Mukai farmhouse
King County’s cultural arts agency has asked the state attorney general to dissolve the nonprofit that owns the Mukai farmhouse and its famous garden and transfer the property to another organization that can “properly steward this important cultural resource.”
In a letter to the attorney general’s office, 4Culture’s lawyer also said Island Landmarks, headed by former Islander Mary Matthews and her husband J. Nelson Happy, has “utterly failed to fulfill its vision and has grown increasingly dysfunctional.”
Jim Kelly, who heads 4Culture, said his agency decided to ask the attorney general to step in — a move it has rarely if ever made before — because of mounting concern over the historic property. The house and garden, a King County landmark that was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, is slated to be auctioned off in December due to three years’ worth of unpaid property taxes.
“We’ve been asked by a lot of people on the Island what we’re doing,” Kelly said in an interview Friday. Now that the property is threatened with tax-foreclosure, he added, “We feel we need to do something.”
The historic farmhouse was purchased largely with public funds, including a $100,000 grant from 4Culture — funds that came with some expectations, Kelly added. “We were hoping for a publicly accessible, interpreted site. That’s not what we’ve gotten out of this.”
But both Matthews and Happy expressed dismay and shock over 4Culture’s actions and contended the agency’s decision will only further complicate the strained relationship between the agency and the nonprofit.
“Spending money on legal fees makes no sense to me,” Happy, in a phone interview from his office in New York City, said. “But if necessary, we’ll do it.”
Matthews, reached in
Texas, where she and Happy live, said she questions 4Culture’s ability to steward the property. A few years ago, when the fruit barreling plant adjacent to the farmhouse was for sale in a bank foreclosure, she tried to get the county to take advantage of the opportunity. Instead, she said, she and Happy ended up purchasing the adjacent property with their own money.
“King County has done nothing. 4Culture has done nothing,” Matthews said. “I question what plans they have to ensure the property is safe and administered for the public good.”
The six-page letter provides a window into the long-simmering issue. Strongly worded in places, it also raises questions about the legality of Island Landmarks, a nonprofit that has had little presence on Vashon since Matthews moved to Texas a few years ago.
The organization, for instance, has only two board members — Matthews and Happy — and as such no longer has a functioning board of directors. (Happy said he recently recruited three new board members, all New York City residents whom he described as committed preservationists.)
What’s more, the letter contends, the organization hasn’t convened an annual membership meeting “for many, many years” — and as a result, it may be in violation of its own bylaws, which require annual meetings to elect board members. Matthews and Happy, the letter adds, “may not have authority to act on behalf of the corporation.”
The letter also raises questions about the fact that the two properties — the farmhouse, purchased with public dollars, and the barreling plant, purchased by Matthews and Happy — are currently listed for sale as one property. The barreling plant, the letter notes, is in substantial disrepair. But by pairing it with the farmhouse, they’ve possibly made the barreling plant — their own property — more valuable, while dragging down the value of the farmhouse. Such a move may be illegal, the letter says.
Kelly, in the interview Friday, said his agency is concerned about the way the two properties are now co-mingled. “I think it’s problematic,” he said.
Happy, however, strongly defended the nonprofit’s status. “What they’ve alleged is false,” he said. The county, he added, may be trying to force the nonprofit to accept a deal that he and Matthews rejected — one that would have led to the Vashon-based Puget Sound Zen Center purchasing the farmhouse.
“It appears to me this is an improper effort to try to force the sale of the property to an organization that the board at Island Landmarks has questions about,” Happy said.
According to the letter, 4Culture helped construct a proposed transaction that it felt would have protected both the farmhouse and the barreling plant. Under the proposal, Island Landmarks would dissolve and the Zen Center would purchase the farmhouse. Some of the proceeds from the sale would then go to Historic Seattle so that it could buy a historic preservation easement from Matthews and Happy; another portion of the proceeds would go to the Cascade Land Conservancy, which would purchase a two-year option on the barreling plant — enough time, the conservancy hoped, to find a long-term buyer.
The letter called it a “win-win-win solution.” By rejecting the plan, the letter added, Matthews and Happy face the prospect of losing the farmhouse to foreclosure.
But Matthews and Happy say they plan to pay off the taxes and don’t believe they’ll lose the properties. What’s more, they added, they don’t believe the Zen Center should own the farm and garden — historic properties that require considerable stewardship. The garden, in particular, is considered special — the only one known to be designed by a Japanese-American woman.
“I don’t think the Zen Center is an organization that has any competency at all in historic preservation,” Matthews said.
But Koshin Chris Cain, abbot for the Zen Center, said the proposal calls for the group to work with both Historic Seattle and the Island’s historic preservation community to steward the property — an approach that many, including 4Culture, believe could work well.
“We wouldn’t be doing history preservation by ourselves,” he said.
The group remains interested in the property — a place Cain has often said would work well for his small but growing sangha, or congregation.