Crescent Bar homeowners forced out of island paradise



Posted on May 13, 2010 at 10:35 AM

Updated Thursday, May 13 at 6:19 PM

CRESCENT BAR ISLAND, Wash. - For fifty years, it's been their island paradise -- where people have invested their lives and in some cases life savings. But now, hundreds of homeowners are being forced out of Crescent Bar.

When Orlan Wood retired to Crescent Bar Island 22 years ago, he thought he'd found the perfect place to spend the rest of his life.

"It's just the kind of place that makes you feel at one with nature," says the fit 77-year-old.

Crescent Bar Island is a sliver of sand in the Columbia River that came to be half a century ago when the government built the Priest Rapids Dam. The feds dredged the Columbia and created the island - establishing a public recreation area for boating and camping. It's a natural paradise, but now, for some, it's become a man-made disaster.

Years before Orlan moved in, people simply came with their campers, but as time passed people stayed. They built elaborate additions to their RVs. Then came the golf course, the restaurant, the massage studio, even a 110-unit condo complex.

But here's the catch - none of it was supposed to be there.

People own their homes but, remember, this is a public campground. The land is owned by the Grant County Public Utilities District. Homeowners are just leasing the land under a 50-year agreement that is about to expire.

Even so, the utility allowed hundreds of people to build permanent homes and businesses here for decades. When asked why the PUD didn't see this problem coming, Lands & Recreation Manager Kelly Larimer replied, "Everybody saw this coming for 20 years. This is not a new topic. It just came to a point where a decision had to be made. We made it and it's not a very popular one with some people."

Now, that 50-year lease is about to expire and the PUD is forcing all 400 residents of Crescent Bar to leave. That's because federal dam regulations mandate the island be used by the public for recreation - not by private homeowners. They are regulations that have been ignored for the past half-century.

Some, though, think the homeowners should leave. Alex Ybarra lives in neighboring Quincy. He says the island is more like a private country club than a public park and that his family has actually been told to leave the property by homeowners.

"We just want out public property back," says Ybarra, who played on the island as a child. "We want our public beaches back. We want to go to the beaches that are ours."

The people of Crescent Bar have always known their time could be up in 2012. But homeowners like Russ Larsen say they have a promise signed by PUD commissioners indicating the lease would be extended to 2023. It reads, "Please rest assured that the District has no plans to alter existing private uses, evict residents or destroy any development that has occurred to date in conformity with ... the terms of the existing leases at Crescent Bar."

"Believe me," Larsen says, "I wouldn't have bought this place if I didn't think this was true."

Larsen bought his spot on the island three years ago and still owes $150,000.

"'Don't worry. We'll take care of you. We'll get you a lease. Don't worry about it.' That's what they said. Now I'm worried," says Larsen.

But the PUD isn't budging. It's the people of Crescent Bar that will move and they have two years to do so.

"We sympathize with the people living on the Island," says the PUD's Kelly Larimer. "But our mission is to generate and deliver power to our customers and, along with that, comes our obligation to be good stewards, provide recreation, and wildlife habitat."

It'll be a difficult time for Orlan Wood and his wife Jean, who suffers from the early onset of Parkinson's Disease. She says the stress of the situation is already taking its toll.

"I get tense and start to shake a little more. But, we have faith that we'll be okay," said Jean.

The couple, however, can't afford to buy another house. A few years ago, their home on the island was valued at $400,000. Now, it's worthless. The Woods, like most people here, don't know what they'll do. Orlan says it keeps him up at night.

"I just think of how we were led down this merry path thinking that we were going to be here forever," said Orlan.