Park district lets caretaker go, triggering questions and concern

For more than 25 years, a caretaker has lived at Point Robinson park, in a building that once housed its lighthouse keeper. The historic point is an important maritime marker, and its lighthouse a critical component of marine navigation in the region. Today, the lighthouse operates electronically, and instead of a keeper to run the beacon, there’s a live-in caretaker to make sure all is well at the park.

He raises and lowers the American flag, opens and closes the park’s main gate and checks in and out vacationers at the one-of-a-kind rentals there. He answers his door, a few steps from the beach, when people knock and ask questions about the park or inform him of a lone seal pup on the beach. His friendly, almost round-the-clock, presence at the park has made worlds of difference there, he and others say, giving the park a personal touch.

But that may soon change. Last month, Vashon Park District commissioners quietly eliminated the on-site Point Robinson position — informing the current caretaker he’d have to be out of his small apartment by the end of the year.

He and a handful of Islanders are upset the board made its decision without informing the public beforehand that the matter would be discussed at its Sept. 23 meeting. Park officials say they will talk further about the matter at a board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 14.

The caretaker, Scott Fischbach, has lived in half the first floor of the 1915 lighthouse keepers quarters for more than two years. The other half of the building, including its entire second floor, is a period-decorated two-bedroom vacation rental, for which the park district charges $850 to $1,050 per week.

The district is ending Fisch-bach’s position because it has already set in motion a plan to overhaul his 300-square-feet portion of the quarters — which is his only compensation for his position — so the building can be rented out in its entirety, as a three-bedroom house.

When its $30,000 renovation and restoration is complete, the building will cost the same to rent as the assistant keepers quarters south of it, said Wendy Braicks, park district executive director — currently $150 to $200 more per week. But the prices of both rentals may be raised in the near future, bringing the total cost for a week in either house to $1,200 to $1,400 per week.

Fischbach, and his 5-year-old son who lives with him half-time, must be out at the end of the year so park staff can begin incorporating his apartment into the adjacent rental unit.

The district has not accepted reservations for the rental at Fischbach’s house from January though May 2009.

Staff plan to complete the renovation and restoration project in those five months and have already begun booking the completed three-bedroom house — before commencing the renovation — for June 2009.

“We are entering a time when we will not have a caretaker, because we will have no place for him to live,” Braicks said. “The long-term decision is whether we will have a caretaker there at all.”

That’s news to Fischbach and others who have been following the district’s plans to build a new caretaker’s residence at the Point Robinson upper parking lot, he said.

“Two weeks ago, there was no indication this was the direction they might be going in,” Fischbach said. “It was all quite behind the scenes.”

At its Sept. 9 meeting, the five-member park board told Capt. Joe Wubbold, president of Keepers of Point Robinson — the park’s stewardship group — it wanted him to look into the possibility of a log cabin-style kit home for the caretaker’s new house.

The board’s sentiments two weeks later were vastly different. Without placing the topic on its meeting agenda — which Wubbold, Fischbach and others look to when deciding whether or not to attend meetings — the board made a “decision to eliminate the caretaker position once the Quarters B renovations begin,” according to draft minutes from the Sept. 23 meeting.

The next morning, Braicks informed Fischbach of his impending termination.

Fischbach has suggested the district hold off on renovations of his living space until a new caretaker home is complete. But park officials told Fischbach it’s too late, he said. Since they’ve already taken the house off the rental market for five months, they told Fischbach that they need to follow through on their plans to begin renovating it in January 2009, he said.

The district’s plans for a new caretaker home are behind schedule, and the project still faces several permitting hurdles. As a result, board chair David Hackett said he thinks the park district may need to reconsider its plans to build a new house for the caretaker.

“How much is it worth to spend on a caretaker house?” he asked. “It’s largely a matter of planning and the matter of the scheduled renovation of that half of the quarters. There’s not going to be a house there in time.”

If Point Robinson had been on the agenda, said Wubbold, he’d have been at the last park meeting.

“My position, and the position of the Keepers, has always been that the park district having a caretaker down there is the right decision,” he said. “Volunteers and the park district have together put an enormous amount of work in there, and we’ve made it a real jewel on our Island — but that doesn’t exempt those who may want to check it out in a malignant way.”

He added that the Point Robinson park holds valuable items and buildings, including park archives, a gift shop, an irreplaceable 1908 glass Fresnel lens in the lighthouse — and the keepers quarters themselves.

“The security of the site has always been the main concern of the Keepers,” Wubbold said. “If we don’t have a caretaker there, word spreads around pretty fast on this little Island.”

Fischbach said his nighttime presence on the point has scared off more than a few after-hours visitors.

Last week, he informed two separate groups at the beach after hours that the park was closed. He’s had few confrontations, he said — “they just turn around and leave.”

“It’s a known fact to the kids of the Island that I’m here,” he said. “It’s a big deterrent.”

He added that he works limited hours as a handyman, but has arranged his schedule to be at the park as much as possible.

Neighbor Tom Feller said Fischbach’s presence at the park should be a non-negotiable. He’s concerned removing Fischbach may lead to more damage or theft at the park.

“Moving him from his quarters down there — it’s tantamount to opening up the floodgates to vandalism,” Feller said. “To have no protection against vandalism down there is going to be a loss; it’s going to be outrageous.”

Another neighbor, Margaret Heffelfinger, voiced similar concerns in a letter to Braicks. Heffelfinger lives five houses south of the park.

“I shudder to think that Point Robinson will be left unattended to and be subject to anyone looking for a party,” she wrote. “We treasure our area, our property and our safety.”

Braicks, however, said park staff and volunteers will be able to take on the duties of a live-in caretaker.

“There are a lot of ways we can address the tasks he’s doing,” she said. “It’s something we can certainly manage.”

But Fischbach said he doesn’t think that’s the case.

In the beginning of July, the security light at Point Robinson’s upper parking lot was broken out. He informed park staff, who indicated they’d take care of it. The light, he said, has yet to be fixed.

Additionally, one of his daily jobs is to open and close the main park gates, at dawn and dusk. In the summer, dusk can be as late as 10 p.m.

“Someone’s going to come in here that late? How realistic is that?” Fischbach said.

He added that when he goes on vacation, it’s the responsibility of the park district to open and close the gate. Neighbors have told him the gate once stayed open the entire time he was gone, he said.

Fischbach also plays a role in personalizing the park and its historic on-site rentals, he said, and worries the park will lose that if no caretaker lives on-site.

He’s had such positive experiences with vacationers there that some send him thank-you letters. Two women who stayed at the keepers quarters told him they slept better at night knowing he lived next door.

One note Fischbach received last week was signed, “Love you, — Lois,” and included a photo of her children having a Fourth of July picnic with Fischbach’s son Shanikai.

“I’m very thankful to the park district to have this place to live,” Fischbach said. “It’s a nice place — who wouldn’t want to be here?”

He said he hasn’t given up hope that the park board will change its mind and let him stay a while longer.

“It’s a mutually beneficial situation, and I feel like they’re messing up a good thing for both of us,” he said. “I hope they can see things in a different light.”

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