Unable to settle, Mukai activists prepare for trial

The legal battle over the Mukai farmhouse continues, as the island group attempting to take control of the property was unable to reach a settlement with its current owner, despite an offer from King County to purchase the house.

The legal battle over the Mukai farmhouse continues, as the island group attempting to take control of the property was unable to reach a settlement with its current owner, despite an offer from King County to purchase the house.

Both sides are now preparing to return to court, with a trial date scheduled for next May.

“We really worked hard to get it done, and it didn’t happen,” said Friends of Mukai President Lynn Greiner of the recent negotiations. “We were really disappointed.”

This fall marks two years since the Friends of Mukai filed suit against Island Landmarks, a nonprofit headed by Texas resident Mary Matthews, over control of the historic Mukai farmhouse and Japanese garden. While unable to prevail in court so far, the Friends group has steadily amassed support for its mission — to get the property out of the hands of Matthews, who has not opened it regularly to the public and who many say has let the house and garden fall into disrepair. Organizations and government agencies ranging from King County 4Culture to the National Trust for Historic Preservation have called for change at Mukai and have thrown their support behind the Friends group.

“A lot of people are excited about what we’ve got going on and are eager to get this resolved,” Greiner said.

Earlier this year, King County offered to purchase the property as part of a settlement agreement between Island Landmarks and the Vashon group, a move that would have ended the legal dispute and added the property to a short list of historic sites the county stewards. However they could not reach a deal Island Landmarks would agree to.

“We’d get right up and very close to what I thought would be a final deal, and they would back away,” said Christie True, who was closely involved in the negotiations as the director of the county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP).

True said King County has been unhappy with the condition of the Mukai property, which was purchased with public funds, and last year the county council approved funds for DNRP to purchase the house and make preliminary repairs there.

The money came from a $900,000 pot left over from a historic preservation loan program that DNRP initiated in the 1990s. While True could not say what the agency offered Island Landmarks for the farmhouse, she said King County allocated $190,000 for the purchase and repairs. Island Landmarks purchased the property for $300,000 in 2000. Once in county hands, True said, the Friends of Mukai would have been involved in managing the property and putting on related programming.

“We saw it as a way of getting the property back under local control and making sure it was well cared for,” she said.

True said Matthews seemed to like the idea of King County stewarding the historic site, but after nine months of negotiations, they couldn’t reach a deal.

“I feel like we really bent over backwards to come to a resolution on all the concerns they raised,” she said.

Neither Mathews nor Bob Krinsky, Island Landmarks’ attorney, returned calls from The Beachcomber. Matthews replied to an email with one comment: “The Beachcomber never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Now, the Friends of Mukai say the condition of the farm and garden has not improved while its ownership has been tied up in court. The farmhouse’s roof, which is in need of significant work, is still covered in plastic. The property is also surrounded by a high, plastic deer fence, which the county’s Historic Preservation Program ordered Island Landmarks to remove last summer. Julie Koler, the program’s preservation officer, said that if the fence isn’t removed by Nov. 26, Island Landmarks could face fines of $500 per day.

“It’s an important historic piece of property that’s being neglected,” said Greiner, who doesn’t believe the property has been opened to the public at all this year. “By all appearances, they’re not doing much.”

But members of the Friends group hope they are now well positioned to prevail in court and take control of the property.

Late last year, a three-judge Court of Appeals panel ruled that the Friends of Mukai did orchestrate their 2012 special meeting and election, where they took control of Island Landmarks’ board and ousted Matthews, according to the organization’s bylaws, reversing a superior court decision from last year that sided with the organization’s original board.

However, the judges also ruled that other facts in the case are unclear, and therefore the superior court should not have granted a summary judgement — a ruling given when there are no facts in dispute — in favor of the original board. The case was sent back to King County Superior Court.

Three experienced trial attorneys are now on the case, offering their work for the Friends group on a pro-bono basis. The legal team recently requested a slate of records from Island Landmarks as part of the lawsuit’s discovery process, documents such as membership lists and financial records that they weren’t able to unearth for the previous hearing. Island Landmarks also has the opportunity to request documents and depositions from the Friends group.

What either side finds could change the course of the lawsuit, said David Brenner, an attorney with the Seattle firm Riddell Williams who has been working with the Vashon group since last year. Settlement is still possible, and if issues of fact are cleared up, he said, either side could again put forward a motion for summary judgement.

“I think there are important issues here,” Brenner said, “and I think the Court of Appeals recognized that in reversing the trial group’s finding against the new board … so there can be a trial.”

As the Friends of Mukai prepare for trial, they’re also continuing to assert themselves as a group determined to tell the Mukai story, regularly putting on programs related to the Mukai family and Vashon’s Japanese-American history. Next weekend they’ll co-sponsor a performance at the Blue Heron by Panama Hotel Jazz, a show that will incorporate some of the history of Seattle’s Japanese-American community, and they’re planning a show with traditional Japanese music and poetry for next spring. A few of them are working with the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association to collect census information about Japanese-Americans on Vashon.

“We’re an active board of 12 people who are committed to securing the property and telling the story,” said board member Yvonne Kuperberg. “If we can tell the story without securing the property, I think we should do it.”

The group has also garnered an $8,000 grant from 4Culture to create a plan to restore the fruit barrelling plant adjacent to the Mukai Farmhouse. The barrelling plant was privately owned by Matthews and Nelson until they sold it to islander Frank Zellerhoff Jr. last year. The Friends group has hoped to take ownership of that property as well, something they said Zellerhoff is open to.

Since last year, Zellerhoff has moved some of his construction business to the barrelling plant and is renting out the rest of the building, though he declined to say who his renters are. However, Vashon Youth Baseball & Softball (VYBS) recently announced a meeting at the barrelling plant, and Cheryl Pruett, the group’s vice president, said VYBS is raising money and has a $3,000 matching donation to outfit a portion of the building for batting cages.

For his part, Zellerhoff said he hadn’t heard of the Friends group’s project to study the barrelling plant and he wasn’t sure if he’d be open to it. Asked if he’d consider selling the place, he said, “Anything is for sale if the price is right.”

True, with King County, said DNRP will be watching closely in the coming months to see what happens with the lawsuit. If there’s another opportunity to settle, she said, the county will still consider purchasing the house.

“The county is still standing by to see if they can help,” she said.