This month it was discovered that a historic home at Fern Cove that the Vashon Park District has been renting out to vacationers for nearly nine years has no septic system. It will not be rented out this summer.
Vashon Park District (VPD) Executive Director Elaine Ott-Rocheford said at the VPD board meeting last Tuesday that the issue was discovered after VPD Lodging Manager Eric Wyatt “noticed awhile back that he’s never received a notice about the septic system needing to be pumped yet.”
“He started doing some digging around and looked at the as-built drawings and there’s no septic and … finally called in (island certified septic system maintainer) Neil Drawbridge to come in and do some tests and … come to find out, there is no septic,” Ott-Rocheford said.
The sewage from the home has been surfacing about 10 feet out from the mouth of Shinglemill Creek, a protected salmon-bearing stream in an area widely regarded as one of the island’s most ecologically rich estuaries.
“It goes underground through a pipe and then it surfaces in this sludgy mess .. and obviously that is heading right into the sound,” she said.
The report filed by Drawbridge to King County indicates he inspected the home on April 3.
“There is no septic tank. Sewage is surfacing in salmon berry bushes at side yard of residence,” he writes in the report.
Hilary Karasz, a spokeswoman for Public Health — Seattle & King County said the report has been received, but there is only one inspector for Vashon Island and he was “not able to gather any information” before The Beachcomber’s deadline. At the April 11 VPD meeting, Ott-Rocheford also said that the organization had not heard from King County one week after the report had been filed.
Last Tuesday’s discussion turned to how to deal with the issue and VPD commissioners were told that installing a system is estimated to cost around $40,000. Ott-Rocheford said there are two grants through King County’s Cultural Services agency, 4Culture, that could be used to fund the project — a $10,000 grant and a different $30,000 grant. She plans on applying for both and has also reached out to the organization’s insurance company, Enduris, to see if there could be an “errors and omissions” claim as the property was handed over to VPD allegedly without the organization knowing it was lacking a septic system.
Asked Friday about how the discovery was not made earlier, Ott-Rocheford said that is “the question of the hour” and remains a mystery.
“We’re scouring our files and haven’t been able to find anything,” she said.
She also said feedback from Enduris has been “promising.”
VPD will be closing the house to rentals until the issue is fixed.
“The ethical thing to do, certainly in our opinion, was to cancel all reservations until we, as a district, decide what we’re going to do going forward. So we have done that,” she said.
The district has already cancelled reservations made for the next 30 days. Ott-Rocheford said VPD is projecting to lose around $20,000 in reservations made for this summer. Rates for the peak season — May to September — run at $1,200 per week or $225 per night. The home brought in $40,000 in 2016 and “broke even,” Ott-Rocheford said Friday. She said the residence also broke even in 2015 after losing around $8,000 in 2014.
But VPD Board Chair Karen Gardner questioned the decision to fix the septic system.
“I always thought it’s not part of our vision to be in the lodging business,” she said. “I don’t know why we would want to spend anymore money on Fern Cove.”
Lodging manager Wyatt justified the lodging by saying that it and the other two properties at Point Robinson bring revenue to the district. Ott-Rocheford said that the lodgings could be seen as recreational facilities as vacations are a form of recreation.
Board member Scott Harvey said that if the district were to move forward with the estimated $40,000 repair with no grants or insurance, they would have to borrow money and it would put the district in tough financial straits come the beginning of 2018.
“We’d be way to tight … down to like $10,000 reserve in January and February … which is totally unacceptable as far as what’s happening here,” he said. “It’s fallen back to a similar situation as far as the pool is concerned. I would be voting that we just shut it down and do it next year.”
Gardner seconded Harvey and said nothing should be done this year.
But Wyatt explained that because of the age of the house and the fact that the basement is built practically underwater, the electricity needs to be kept on to keep the pumps running and keeping water from accumulating in the basement.
The park district was given the historic home in 2008 in part by fundraising that was done by a group called The Friends of Fern Cove. The agreement prevents VPD from selling the historic property, Ott-Rocheford said.
“Selling it is off the table completely, forever,” she said.
Captain Joe Wubbold, who has been following VPD’s actions for many years, recalled the transaction and said the home was “acquired with a considerable amount of entailment.”
It was built in 1912 and occupied by Belle Baldwin, one of the Northwest’s first female physicians. When VPD took ownership of it, the organization spent $179,000 on renovations and remodels to get it ready for use as a vacation rental. A $300,000 10-year bond that is still currently being paid was passed to fund the project that restored and updated the home, but the septic system was apparently overlooked.
The Beachcomber reported in April of 2008 that the plumbing and the wiring were redone, according to Wendy Braicks, the VPD Executive Director at the time. A Monday call to her was not returned before press time.
“The costs that were associated with the acquiring of the property were almost nothing to the park district,” Wubbold said. “The costs associated with getting it ready to rent were very high.”
VPD is pursuing the grants and insurance claim and will decide from there if the work to put in a septic system can be done this year.