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State to pay $4.5 million for wake damage

The state has agreed to pay Rich Passage property owners nearly $4.5 million, settling a class-action lawsuit over shoreline damage caused by speedy passenger-only ferries.

The settlement – which brings the dismissal of all claims in the suit, but does not preclude future legal action – will compensate property owners for beach erosion and damage to bulkheads and other shoreline structures.

It also allows for continued passenger-ferry service through the narrow passage, at a compromise speed of 16 knots.

The settlement was announced by Washington State Ferries on Tuesday, and was hailed by shoreline owners.

“We’re absolutely thrilled,” said Bill Cairns, a Point White resident and one of 15 islanders represented in the suit.

The class-action filing included about 113 property owners total, with 20 in the Manchester area and the rest on the shores of Port Orchard Bay.

Cairns said the settlement brings the parties “back where we started,” with the state acknowledging its responsibility for ferry wake impacts. Twice during the 1980s, he said, the WSF slowed its vessels voluntarily after complaints of shoreline damage.

“(This time) they said, ‘hey, if you don’t like it, sue us,’” Cairns said. “They were just too heavily invested in these boats, and couldn’t admit they were wrong.”

The sleek foot-ferry Chinook was launched on the Bremerton-to-Seattle run in spring 1998 to considerable fanfare, hailed for its higher speed and shorter crossing time. At 34 knots, the crossing better than halved the nearly hour-long passage of the lumbering auto ferries on that route.

But property owners on both sides of the passage began complaining of beach erosion as the Chinook and its sister vessel, the Snohomish, roared past.

Cairns said ferries’ wakes turned the shoreline in front of his home into a “moonscape,” with sand and sealife swept away.

“You couldn’t find a living thing on that beach – nothing,” he said.

Residents filed suit against the state in March 1999, and four months later the boats were slowed by a court injunction. That injunction was overturned by the state Supreme Court in spring 2000 and the boats speeded up again, but a scientific study of the shoreline environment continued.

The review, completed last summer, determined that the vessels were among several factors contributing to shoreline damage. Also cited, WSF officials said, were bulkhead placement; tide, wind and current; and wakes from other vessels.

But the Chinook and Snohomish eventually were slowed again, to 12 knots in the narrowest part of the passage. At the new compromise speed – extended to include a longer stretch of the passage – the crossing time is expected to take 40 minutes.

In negotiating with property owners to resolve the suit, ferry officials argued that many of the bulkheads said to have been damaged were aging, poorly maintained or never properly permitted.

But officials said it was difficult to assess the degree to which each factor contributed to damage. The settlement “avoids the potential of a lengthy and costly trial and unpredictable jury verdicts” in which the state might be found solely responsible, WSF spokesperson Pat Patterson said in a news release.

The agreement “reflects compromise by both the ferry system and the property owners,” Patterson said.

Cairns dismissed the impacts of other vessels, and said the ferries were solely responsible. Each time the vessels have been slowed, he said, the area has restored itself almost immediately.

“It’s like a yo-yo,” Cairns said.

The settlement still must be approved by Superior Court Judge Glenna Hall, who ruled against WSF in the 1999 injunction. A hearing is slated for late May.

Community Events, April 2014

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