The group of islanders fighting in court over control of the Mukai house and garden is now trying to stop the property’s sale to an unknown buyer.
Representatives of the Friends of Mukai filed an emergency motion in the state Court of Appeals last week after learning that Island Landmarks, currently headed by Texas resident Mary Matthews, plans to sell the historical property near town to an unidentified third party. Members of the friends group argue that the sale should be stopped, as they are still appealing a King County Superior Court decision that they did not lawfully take control of Island Landmarks, the nonprofit that owns the Mukai farmhouse, last year. The appeals case is scheduled to go before a three-judge panel next month.
“We’re doing everything we can to stop it,” said Lynn Greiner, a Friends of Mukai board member and an attorney for the group. “The only asset to Island Landmarks is the house. If the property is sold, Island Landmarks is a shell.”
The motion asks that the court halt the sale, which could be finalized Nov. 6, until the appeals case is resolved. The 10-page motion, filed by Greiner and Vashon attorney Dan Chasan, argues that if the current Island Landmarks board was legally ousted last year, as they claim in their appeals case, then Matthews and her board have no right to sell the house. What’s more, they say, if the historic property is sold to a third party, public stewardship of the site would be unlikely and nearly half a million dollars of public funds used to purchase the farmhouse in 2000 would be squandered.
“It was purchased with public money, and it belongs to the public,” Greiner said. “Our position is they don’t have the right to sell it.”
An appeals court official ordered on Thursday that Matthews and the current board of Island Landmarks file a response by tomorrow. A hearing in the appeals case was previously scheduled for Nov. 19.
“It was good news that the court responded so quickly,” Greiner said.
Matthews could not be reached for comment, and Matthews’ attorney, Bob Krinsky, declined to comment on the situation.
Jim Kelly, the director of King County 4Culture — the cultural arts agency that helped fund the farmhouse’s purchase a decade ago — said he, too, was concerned about the potential sale and the mystery surrounding it. 4Culture has been supportive of the friends group’s efforts, and Kelly said it was in the public’s best interest that the farmhouse stay tied to a nonprofit organization.
“Nonprofits don’t typically sell their assets,” he said. “It would be akin to a museum selling part of their collection.”
The surprise move follows last month’s quiet sale of the historic fruit barreling plant adjacent to the farmhouse. Matthews and her husband Nelson Happy, purchased the fruit barreling plant in 2006 with their own money, citing plans to keep the two properties together. According to King County records, the two sold the property in early September to Zellerhoff Construction, owned by islander Frank Zellerhoff, Jr., for $270,000.
Zellerhoff, reached by The Beachcomber, declined to give details on his plans for the 2-acre property and large historical structure, but did say he believes he has the option to move his construction business to the site. He placed an offer on the farmhouse as well, he said, but it was not accepted, and he doesn’t know who the current buyer is.
“I bought it for a couple reasons,” he said, referring to the fruit barreling plant. “I don’t want to disclose too much at this point.”
Zellerhoff said he was interested in the property both for its physical qualities and its historic nature. Though not a historical preservationist, he said he’s always been interested in history. In fact, he once interviewed Masa Mukai, who farmed strawberries at the Mukai farm with his father B.D. Mukai, for a project he did as a high schooler, he said.
“I knew him way back, though not as well as a lot of other people,” he said.
For several years, Zellerhoff has been in a dispute with King County over whether he can operate his small construction business — an operation that includes heavy machinery, a shop and stump grinding — on Cemetery Road. In 2008, The Beachcomber reported that Zellerhoff’s noisy stump-grinding operation was in violation of King County code.
An official with the county Department of Permitting and Environmental Review’s code enforcement office could not be reached for comment, but Zellerhoff said he is still trying to work with the county. Moving his business elsewhere, however, may be his only option in the end.
Zellerhoff said that whatever he does with the property, he is happy to oblige by the requirements of its historical landmark status — which requires the property be maintained but not necessarily opened to the public — and he believes he had the island’s best interests in mind.
“Bottom line, I am for the community,” he said.
Member of Friends of Mukai said last week they were wary of the possibility of a construction business or a noisy operation moving to the site.
“I hope it doesn’t come to that. It’s kind of a serene atmosphere,” said Glenda Pearson, who heads the Friends of Mukai.
However, Pearson also said that someone from their group had been in touch with Zellerhoff and he seemed welcoming to their ideas.
“He’s sympathetic to the property, and I think he’s someone who could be cooperative to that extent,” she said.
Both Pearson and Greener noted that Zellerhoff was already making some drainage improvements at the property.
“We’re pleased he owns it. From our perspective, it’s good news that Matthews and Happy don’t own it anymore,” Greiner said, adding that the group hoped to eventually reunite the two properties and see them in public ownership.
For now, though, the group is focusing its efforts on stopping the sale of the farmhouse, which by Greiner’s estimate could be finalized as soon as Nov. 6 if a judge doesn’t step in.
Island Landmarks notified the state of the pending property transfer, a requirement of the property’s historic preservation easement, in late September.
In a letter to the state Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP), Island Landmarks secretary Theodore Nikolis doesn’t list a buyer or purchase price, but simply says the property will be transferred. Pearson said documents she obtained through a public disclosure request show that a sale of the property is planned, though Matthews has been unresponsive to requests to identify the buyer.
In the letter, Nikolis — who Greiner notes was not previously a known board member — writes that neither Matthews nor Happy participated in the group’s approval of the property transfer, something that Pearson said has led her to suspect that perhaps Matthews and Happy could be the buyers.
Greiner said it was possible that Island Landmarks could legally sell the property, but any profit would have to remain with the nonprofit. She called the sale questionable, considering that Island Landmarks, under Matthews, purchased the property largely with public funds, and said the Friends of Mukai as well as the DAHP were concerned by Matthews’ refusal to identify the buyer. If the purchaser were a party that planned to restore the place and open it to the public — something the group argues that Matthews and Island Landmarks have failed to do — then they would expect Island Landmarks to be more forthcoming, she said.
“The fact that they’re doing this at all is a problem, and the fact that they won’t say who the buyer is is raising all kinds of red flags from various parties, including the state,” Greiner said.
Pearson noted that in the past the friends group has offered to join Island Landmarks, to help Matthews with the property and even to take control of the house, but Matthews has consistently said that only a large organization such as the National Park Service could property maintain it. The group was baffled, then, by their move to sell the barreling plant to Zellerhoff, she said, and concerned about who the buyer of the farmhouse may be.
“This seems disturbing, to say the least,” Pearson said.
As the Friends of Mukai waited for a decision on the emergency motion, they said they believe their appeals case, set to go before a three-judge panel, is only getting stronger.
Earlier this month, four local, state and national agencies filed an amicus, or “friends of the court” brief in the lawsuit, backing up the group of islanders and arguing that they should be granted control of the Island Landmarks.
The agencies siding with the Friends group include the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Historic Seattle and 4Culture.
“It carries a lot of weight in court,” Greiner said of the brief. “It shows the court there are a lot of parties and people that are concerned about it, concerned about what’s happening.”