A state agency has found evidence that the Mukai Farmhouse is being used as an occasional private residence, a possible violation of a state grant the nonprofit received to purchase the historic site more than a decade ago.
The top two officials in the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation inspected the site last month. During the visit, they also saw little indication that Island Landmarks, the nonprofit organization that owns the farmhouse, had accomplished any historic preservation work over the past 12 years or had offered the public regular access to the site.
In a strongly worded, three-page letter to Mary Matthews, president of Island Landmarks, Allyson Brooks, the state preservation officer and head of the historic preservation agency, voiced concern about the status of the house and Island Landmarks’ apparent failure to live up to the terms of the state grant.
“The State of Washington is considering its legal options to prevent further personal use of the property and further deterioration of the historic character,” Brooks wrote.
She called on Matthews to “cease and desist from any further personal use of the historic resource and remove all modern items impairing the historic character of the home.”
But Matthews, in an emailed response to Brooks’ letter, took umbrage at the allegations.
“We vehemently deny that at any time any member of the Island Landmarks board has ever used the site for their own ‘personal benefit.’ To the contrary, everyone involved has made great sacrifices for this project, just to keep it going, so that at some day in the future the dream of an operating, staffed, professionally run historic site could be realized,” she said in the email.
Island Landmarks purchased the property in 2000 for $300,000 in county, state and federal dollars, promising at the time to turn the farmhouse and its prized Japanese garden into a historic interpretive center open to the public. The property, open to the public only by appointment and occasionally in spring when the cherry trees bloom, is currently at the center of an ongoing dispute. Several islanders contend Matthews is failing to honor her commitments to Vashon, has co-mingled funds and is overseeing a dysfunctional organization.
The group’s attempt to take over leadership of Island Landmarks is currently in court on appeal, after the Vashon group lost during a trial in King County Superior Court.
In an interview Thursday, Brooks said she decided to inspect the property after she attended a meeting on Vashon and heard islanders and others in the historic preservation community voice their concerns about the condition of the house. The agency has a legal right to inspect the property under the terms of an easement the state received when it awarded Island Landmarks a $150,000 grant. As required, Brooks gave Matthews seven days’ notice of the inspection.
But when she and Greg Griffith, deputy director of the state agency, entered the house on Dec. 17, Brooks said, “I was very taken aback. ... I didn’t expect to see personal items.”
The two public officials found a half-used bottle of mouthwash in the bathroom, a TV set and VCR in the historic bedroom, partially used food in the refrigerator, a shopping list on the refrigerator door and airline baggage tags bearing Matthews’ name in a trash can in the bedroom.
“We didn’t give (Island Landmarks) money for someone to live in the house,” Brooks said.
“Generally, when the state gives out funding for the public good, the nonprofit uses it for the public good,” she added. “I’ve never seen property used for private purposes.”
Brooks was also troubled by what she didn’t see, she said: signage directing visitors to the site, evidence of restoration work on the historic garden and indication of public use or access.
“The house, which is supposed to be a historic interpretive center, has no interpretive displays except for one cardboard trifold created by a secondary school student,” Brooks said in the letter to Matthews.
But Matthews, reached in Texas, where she’s again living after several months on Vashon, said Brooks’ characterization of the situation was incorrect and unfair. She said she routinely opens up the site to visitors when the cherry trees are in bloom. There were no displays, she added, because this is the off-season.
“We explained to her that we were closed,” Matthews said.
As for the personal items in the house, she said they were hold-overs from recent weeks, when volunteers were there to work on the property. “I’d challenge you to go into any historic site and not see those types of things,” Matthews said.
Brooks, in her letter, told Matthews that state officials would like to meet with Island Landmarks’ board by Feb. 15 to determine remedies to the situation, “which may include recapture of funds.” Brooks has also turned to the state Attorney General’s office to help craft “a legal remedy,” she said.
“We as a state have to consider if there’s been a misuse of state funds and a need to recapture that money,” she said.