The Thurston County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing on Tuesday, November 28, to gather input on a proposal to transfer ownership of five roads from the county to the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation.
The roads in question include portions of Anderson Road SW, 188th Avenue SW, 183rd Avenue SW, 195th Avenue SW, and Moon Road SW, primarily providing access to tribal communities and the Lucky Eagle Casino.
Thurston County Engineer Matt Unzelman noted that these roads comprise a small portion of the over 1,000 roadway miles owned and maintained by the county. He said transferring ownership would reduce maintenance costs for the county over time.
Unzelman emphasized that both parties would benefit from the proposal. It would allow the tribe to prioritize the maintenance and emergency response activities of the roads. He noted that if snow ever occurs, those roads are most important for the tribe to access tribal communities and the casino. However, the county has competing priorities, such as taking care of main roads like Martin Way and emergency service routes to hospitals.
However, Unzelman explained that the proposed agreement would require the roads to continue being used for transportation and maintained in their current or better condition. "If that doesn't happen, mechanisms within that agreement would allow those roads to be turned back to the county… the Western Washington Supreme Court would have to make that determination.”
BOCC Chair Carolina Mejia entertained comments from community members as she opened the public hearing.
Eric Johnson, a farmer from southwest Thurston County who owns a property along Moon Road, voiced his opposition to expanding the reservation on his property. He stated that the county purchased part of his road frontage on Moon Road to put in a bridge.
The farmer said the country used public funds to buy the right-of-way to a certain point on Moon Road. He viewed the transfer of roads as a "gifting of public funds" and expressed doubts about the management of tribal grounds in the past. He also raises the issue of easements, emphasizing that the county cannot transfer easements to a non-governmental agency.
Rob Laymon, who owns a property next to the Lucky Eagle Casino, claimed the tribe has shut off access to his property multiple times, demanding cash payments to allow access.
Despite acknowledging that many tribal members are wonderful people, Laymon criticized non-tribal employees who have allegedly demanded cash payments from him to move trees and hay on his property.
"The people working for are white, and they're not good people. They're scum,” Laymon alleged. “And I can tell you right now, they would say you pay me money, or you don't get to move your trees off your property, you pay me cash, or you don't get to move the hay off your property."
Laymon recounted seeking legal recourse but being told he had no standing in tribal court. He is concerned that granting the tribe control of roads will allow them to further extort money from him.
Community member Brian said granting the roads to the tribe will eliminate taxpayer involvement and control over infrastructure they have funded since 1852. He is worried that once the county relinquishes ownership, taxpayers will have no representation in road matters.
Brian suggested an interlocal agreement for road maintenance as an alternative to the proposed transfer. He viewed the transfer as a "gift of public funds."
Planning Director for the Chehalis Tribe, Amy Loudermilk, maintained that the road transfer is strictly about maintenance. She explained that the tribe has road crews and equipment to respond to issues quicker than the county.
Loudermilk gave examples where the county failed to maintain roads or respond to problems promptly and adequately. The tribe would like the transfer to occur to maintain roads for everyone living on the reservation. She believes the tribe can provide better road upkeep than the county has.
"There's been several instances in the last couple years where Thurston County has not come down and maintained the roads, one of the last times we had a big snow event. Thurston County never came down and did any plowing whatsoever. Our crew was out as soon as it started snowing, and they were rotating shifts, plowing all the roads we have in the Grays Harbor County side on how all the side roads," Loudermilk commented.
Harry Chesnin, Chehalis Tribe attorney, noted that tribal roads would receive funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help with maintenance. He also clarified that the tribal police have an agreement with the county sheriff for law enforcement on the reservation, similar to concurrent jurisdiction.
Chehalis Tribe Chairman Dustin Klatush claimed he lived on 185th Avenue for over 12 years, and the road received no maintenance from the county during that time. He works for the tribe's construction company and said they have equipment to clear roads, mow sides, and fill potholes.
The tribe operates like a public works department with equipment and manpower for road upkeep.
Klatush welcomed landowners with problems to see him directly and aimed to work cooperatively with surrounding community members.
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