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Ferry system settles suit

A three-year battle ended Tuesday as Washington State Ferries announced a $4.4 million lawsuit settlement with Rich Passage-area property owners, who claimed the fast ferries seriously damaged their properties and the neighborhood ecosystem.

“We’re certainly happy it’s over,” said Doug Waddell, spokesman-elect for the plaintiffs.

Waddell, who lives on waterfront property just outside Port Orchard, said damage started from the first moment the Chinook — WSF’s first high-speed catamaran — started making runs between Bremerton and Seattle in May, 1998. He and other coastal inhabitants watched as their beaches washed away and the wildlife which frequented the shoreline slowly vanished.

Although the Chinook, and its sister-ship the Snohomish, were designed to be nearly wakeless, Waddell said the design was useless in a waterway like Rich Passage. The slope of the inlet’s sea floor and the funnel-shape of the passage, he said, amplified what little wake the boat did produce, causing huge breakers to form and batter the shorelines on either side.

According to the lawsuit documents, wash from the Chinook alone could create waves 12 feet high as it struck shoreline bulkheads. Waddell said a video was made of this phenomenon, and said several people who watched it compared the waves to ones they had previously seen in Hawaii — a state famous for its challenging surf.

“They really did scare a lot of children around there,” Waddell said, echoing the lawsuit’s claims that small children were in danger of being swept off the beach by these waves. “If you haven’t seen the video, you wouldn’t believe it.”

Although the lawsuit asked for monetary damages and cited loss of property as one of the bases for the suit, Waddell said money was not the primary object behind the legal battle. He said the other charges, involving environmental impact, were more important than property devaluation caused by beach loss.

The first two charges allege WSF violated the Shorelines Management Act and the state Environmental Policy Act by engaging in activity — operating boats — that destroyed shellfish and kelp beds and eroded natural shoreline. Waddell said when he first moved into his current home in 1996, he could watch salmon feeding from his backyard and often was visited by cranes and eagles, which relied on the Rich Passage tide flats as a food source.

“Some of my damages, you can’t put a monetary value on,” he said. “It was almost like living in an aquarium out here, but it’s all gone. (The wake) killed off all the marine growth, and it hasn’t come back. I don’t know if it will ever come back.”

The settlement will pay damages to the 113 specific property owners who responded to a state inquiry regarding the extent of damage. The original lawsuit named any property owner who suffered loss as a result of the boat wake, which amounted to 284 people. However, the courts found this class to be too broad and trimmed it down.

The final list still includes people who own property not only on Rich Passage, but all along Sinclair Inlet from Port Orchard to Wautauga Beach north of Manchester, from Bremerton to Bainbridge Island.

Many of the specified property owners joined the Shoreline Conservation Alliance, a legal body set up to help direct and fund the suit. Waddell said members assessed their own properties numerous times to pay the lawsuit’s bills. Although the lawyers retained worked on contingency, Waddell said the property owners had to pay for their own expert witnesses and research.

“We had to counter every claim the power of the state had,” he said. “That got expensive.”

The lawsuit gives the property owners the right to sue again if they feel their concerns have not been addressed by WSF. However, Waddell said one three-year lawsuit was more than enough for most people. Many people, including two of the four litigants actually listed in the suit, sold their properties and left before the settlement was reached.

“We were all amateurs at this,” Waddell said. “Had we had any clue this would go this long, we would have said: ‘To heck with it — we’re moving.’ ”

There’s still some hoops to be jumped through before the litigants get their checks.

Sean Matt, the coordinating attorney on the case, said the settlement, including the breakdown of individual cash awards, must first be approved by the court. After nearly $350,000 in upfront cash investment — mostly money paid to expert witnesses — is reimbursed and the plaintiffs’ lawyers get a negotiated 25 percent cut, approximately $3.1 million is left to be distributed among the 113 class members.

Matt said the money will be divided in accordance with how much property damage each individual claimant sustained, an amount established by an engineer specializing in shoreline maintenance.

“You have some stretches of shoreline in that area that sustained very little impact,” Matt said. “Some people sustained more damage than others. (However,) the highest dollar claims are going to be from the people with the most shoreline.”

After a 30-day comment period and a final seal of approval from the courts, WSF will write a check for the amount in trust of Matt’s law office — Seattle-based Hagens Berman.

If all goes as planned, Matt said, the class members should be getting their checks by late June.

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