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High Country News: "The case of the missing binders"

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November 10, 2009 -- An investigation into missing binders has put a temporary halt on American Forest Land Co.'s development plans, as officials sort out the details of what happened. 

By Arla Shephard for the HCN Goat Blog

Central Washington’s Kittitas County, hungry for economic uplift since the fall of the timber industry, has been in the limelight a lot lately for scuffles over development.  The proliferation of subdivisions there has met sharp criticism from certain corners (see Cally Carswell’s recent article “Death by a thousand wells” on the area’s over-reliance on exempt domestic water wells), and earlier this year, the timber company American Forest Land Co. struck a deal with investment group Teanaway Solar Reserve to develop a large-scale solar plant on 400 of its acres in the county (see my HCN story “Solar salvation?”).

The most recent turn in the development saga involves an investigation that centers on a set of inconspicuous black binders. The story goes something like this: American Forest recently announced plans to develop part of its 46,000 acres of land into a “fully contained community,” which would include affordable, moderate and high-end housing. Wayne Schwandt, a principal investor in the company, said American Forest hopes to do a "land exchange" whereby zoning for some of its acres (39,744 of which are currently marked as commercial forest land) would be changed to accommodate commercial and residential development.

The announcement enraged Catherine Clerf, a member of the county's Land Use Advisory Committee, who alleges that the company -- which purchased the timberland in 1999 -- has always planned to carpet its holdings with houses, reports The Daily Record.

 Clerf maintains that John Rudey, the head of the company that bought the timberland in 1999, never intended to operate it as commercial forest land. Instead, she asserts, Rudey early on began trying to change the land use designation. Initial efforts went nowhere. In the spring of 2007, AFLC filed an administrative segregation request with the county’s Community Development Services (CDS) Department, submitting three, three-ring binders. An administrative segregation plan isn’t subject to public review, and decisions regarding the plan are handled by an administrator.

Clerf claims that Darryl Piercy, then-director of the Community Development Services Department, showed her and other members of the Land Use Advisory Committee the contents of those binders. What they contained, she says, was an outline for developing thousands of homes on the company's land.

That was back in 2007, and the company eventually withdrew its initial request. But its new development announcement has brought those three binders back into the spotlight: Clerf recently discovered that two of the binders were missing and filed a theft report with the Ellensburg Police Department. 

The ensuing investigation has put a temporary halt on American Forest Land Co.'s development plans, as officials sort out the details of what happened. A former county employee, Scott Turnbull, confessed to turning over the binders to Jeff Jones, a land manager for American Forest. Turnbull, now an employee of the timber company, told police he never thought that giving public records back to the customers who submitted them would be an issue.

Jones, as it turns out, had sent the binders to Patrick Ryan, a lawyer for American Forest. Ryan returned the binders to Ellensburg Police.

The question remains as to whether any information was removed from the binders. Furthermore, the computer folder at the Community Development Services Department which would have contained American Forest's 2007 request appears to be missing.

"These are public records. At this point, we're still investigating, " said Ellensburg Police Chief Dale Miller. But "potentially, this could be a Class C felony."