News

Road end opened, closed

A man overstepped the law when he cut off the lock at Fletcher Landing, police say.

The wheels of justice were turning too slowly to suit Tom Chester.

So the road-end advocate decided to take matters – and a bolt cutter – into his own hands.

The Bayview Boulevard resident freely admits that he snipped the lock off the gate at Fletcher Landing and declared public access at the disputed road end, possibly getting himself into legal trouble in the process.

He doesn’t seem concerned.

“If I’m guilty of a crime, it’s litter,” Chester said. “I left (the lock) behind.”

The road end has been gated and locked for 10 years by neighbors who claim exclusive deeded interest in the property. It became a cause celebre for road end advocates and the city sued for public access, prevailing in two separate court decisions.

In 2002, a Kitsap Superior Court judge found that the road end had historically been used for public access to the water as a ferry landing, and that the right of way had never been relinquished. That decision was upheld by the Washington State Court of Appeals last month.

But the gate has remained locked, while neighbors decide whether to seek reconsideration of the appellate court decision or petition the state Supreme Court for review. Neighbors did not return calls for comment this week, and the status of the case was unclear.

Lisa Neal, one of the neighbors doing battle with the city, had previously asked the public to avoid the road end “until the matter is completely resolved, perhaps by a higher court.”

The decision could also be appealed by other parties looking for a test case for broader issues of public access to Washington shorelines.

But as Chester reads the most recent decision, the road end is open. So 10 days ago, he went there to clear blackberry brambles from the trail leading to the beach. And he cut the lock off the gate and posted a sign reading “Public Access – Please Enjoy Fletcher Landing.”

A confrontation with neighbors ensued; Chester went home, and the police showed up at his residence shortly thereafter. Although he credited the police officer for being “professional and cool,” Chester said he was told not to go back. Several hours later, he said, his “Public Access” sign was removed.

“We knew they’d take it down,” Chester said. “We just didn’t know how quickly.”

The lock was replaced as well, and the gate remained chained this week.

Chester’s actions were investigated for possible charges of trespassing and malicious mischief. But Bainbridge police issued a statement Tuesday saying that no charges are imminent.

“Due to reports in the media of the court’s initial finding that the access was open to the public and being unaware the case had been appealed, the subject thought he had the right to access the beach,” police said. “The beach access is closed to the public until the appeal process is complete. No charges are pending at this time.”

Ironically, Chester doesn’t even live in the neighborhood. He resides on Little Manzanita Bay, several miles away. But he said a road end near his home is freely enjoyed by the public with no complaint.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said, gesturing to the beach outside his home. “I look out here, and nobody’s ever been chased off and there’s never been a problem. And even if there were a problem, it wouldn’t be my right to close it off.”

Chester – a political hobbyist who enjoys debating what he calls “libertopians” in online forums – has started a website to give his side of the story.

Early this week, he and his daughter were crafting signs promoting “www.freefletcherlanding.com” to be posted around the island.

In the meantime, if Chester is an outlaw, it’s a mantle he wears with some pride.

“Dispute it all you want,” he said of the appeals process. “But in the meantime, the public should have access. That’s what it comes down to.”

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