The Agate Beach Road Question

Our District 3 Council member, Jamie Stevens has submitted a proposal to vacate the part of the road that runs along the northern part of the “Agate Beach Road,” a part of the officially named Mackaye Harbor Road,  because it is threatened by beach erosion. So far the county council agrees and has obtained $350,000 grant from the state for studies of the project. However, as the two aerial photos show, the beach along the northerly portion, has not shown any erosion for forty five years.


The section to be vacated, runs for approximately 2,000 feet along Outer Bay. It provides access to some twenty other property owners south of the part to be vacated,  their public utilities, water, power and telephone, as well as access to Iceberg Point part of the newly established San Juan Islands National Monument. It also provides access to a small county park and is a pleasant place to walk, bicycle or drive along the shoreline.

The road runs along areas of two separate geological types.  The north portion runs about 800 feet starting at a point about two hundred feet north of the county park. The adjoining beach is mostly sand and gravel and the bank along here averages just three feet. According to the report of a geological engineer in 2002 the bank along this reach shows negligible erosion.  Aerial photographs taken in 1971 and 2004 show there has been no erosion along this reach for at least forty five years. The geologic composition of this portion of the beach is beach drift and is considered stable. This portion of the beach is recorded as a spawning area for forage fish.

The remaining portion of the beach runs south for approximately 1,200 feet. The road, and the bank begins to rise here until they reach a height of approximately 25 feet at the southern end. The geologic composition of this portion of the beach is glaciomarine drift and considered unstable. The only erosion is occurring along this south portion of the road. Erosion along this part of road in 1993 required moving the road landward. There currently are two eroding areas that are a serious threat to the road and two more potential threats according to engineering inspection. The most serious erosion is taking place directly opposite the parking area for the county park. It is directly under a lone tree on the seaward side of the road. The tree can be seen in the above photos. The erosion is close to undermining the road. For several years the road department has attempted to halt that erosion by dumping large boulders at this point but that has not been effective. The stonework might have been more effective if well located but that would require some equipment to be landed on the beach to move the rocks. This part of the beach is not considered to be stable and is not a forage fish spawning area but there is a suggestion that it might become so if the erosion was stabilized.

There will be some problems in finding an alternate road inland behind the existing houses. That area is mostly wetlands. The consultancy reports in the public works files show several potential alternates but none them avoid the wetlands. Should a satisfactory alternate route be found there would have to be some special arrangements for owners to access some of the existing houses.

State law prohibits vacating any road abutting bodies of water:

RCW 36.87.130 Vacation of roads abutting bodies of water prohibited unless for public purposes or industrial use. No county shall vacate a county road or part thereof which abuts on a body of salt or freshwater unless the purpose of the vacation is to enable any public authority to acquire the vacated property for port purposes, boat moorage or launching sites, or for park, viewpoint, recreational, educational or other public purposes, or unless the property is zoned for industrial uses.

So far no alternative use for the road right of way has been proposed. The most logical uses would be to add it to the park or make it into a walking trail.

The county also is required to find that vacating the road would be a benefit the public:

RCW 38.60(1)…. If the county road is found useful as a part of the county road system it shall not be vacated, but if it is not useful and the public will be benefitted by the vacation, the county legislative authority may vacate the road or any portion thereof.

The estimated cost of the alternate road is somewhere between $3,000,000 and $5,000,000 which certainly is no public benefit. Nor would the damage to wetlands by such a road be a benefit to anyone.

The ownership of the property owners along the north part of the road extends across the road and out to the meander line which, at this point, is somewhere seaward of the high tide line. As a result the property owners along this stretch of road own a small strip of  property on the seaward side of the road and also the beach and a substantial portion of the tidelands as well. A clever lawyer might try to convince a court that since there was this small strip of land between the road and the beach the road did not actually “abut” on the waterfront as the law requires. Vacating the road would be a very fine benefit for the property owners but certainly not to the taxpayers.

Vacation of the road also would cut back on what is one of our most valuable scenic assets. Here on Lopez out of 42 miles of shoreline we only have 3.3 miles of shoreline one can drive along.  Agate Beach is especially likeable since it is the only one of the shoreline drives from which you can see San Juan Island, Long and Charles Islands, the south end of Lopez Island, the open straits, Haro Strait and Vancouver Island. It is a popular place for walking, biking or driving. Losing it would be no benefit.

Finally this is an extremely unwise proposal. It is contrary to the state law, is no benefit to the public, would be very expensive  and, ironically, would by-pass the part of the beach that is not eroding and would lead directly to the part of the beach that is eroding for which no provisions have, so far, been made.  The public is owed an explanation as to why it was even considered. The council should return the $350,000 to the state, or get approval to use it on the part of the road that is eroding.

Note: All the factual information in this report has come from reports of various consultants on file in county records. The aerial photographs are from the Army Corps of Engineers. The conclusions and opinions are my own.


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