Environmental groups sue state to halt Westport golf proposal

Suit claims settlement with old golf developers prohibits wetland fill at Westport Light State Park

Grays Harbor environmental groups filed a lawsuit March 29 to halt a significant and controversial golf course development at a state park in Westport as it moves through environmental review.

The lawsuit, filed by the Friends of Grays Harbor and Grays Harbor Audubon Society, claims building the proposed links would violate a settlement prohibiting the filling of wetlands in Westport Light State Park and break state laws for intended use of park lands.

Environmentalists are seeking a court to declare whether or not the agencies vetting the proposal are bound by years of previous challenges to golf course projects at the same property and issue an enforcement order to stop the project.

“Creating the course would destroy one of the last remaining intact large scale interdunal wetlands and take this public land and convert it to private use,” said Arthur Grunbaum, president of the Friends of Grays Harbor, said in an April 4 announcement.

The group filed the lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court.

Four years after getting the nod from the State Parks Commission to move forward with planning a links-style golf course in the park, Westport Golf Links developers have completed scoping and analysis and are now budging through the environmental review and permitting process, with a draft Environmental Impact Statement expected in the coming weeks.

Final approval of the project lies in the hands of the State Parks Commission. The lawsuit hopes to put the brakes on the project before it gets to that point, claiming existing legal precedent doesn’t allow for a golf course in the park.

The heart of the suit draws from a decades-old dispute over another golf course proposal at the same site, the 270-acre Links at Half Moon Bay. In 2007, Friends of Grays Harbor reached a settlement with the former developer and the city of Westport that set environmental restrictions on development, including that the course would not be allowed to fill any wetlands in during construction. The project was later abandoned.

In 2015 state parks bought the property, connecting state properties to form the 600-acre Westport Light State Park. A year later part of the park was reclassified as suitable for recreational business activity, opening land to private investment as one of four pilot sites across the state.

But environmental groups argue the nearly 20-year-old agreements still bind everyone involved, and were “intended to be a covenant running with the land applying to any future golf course project designs.”

Additionally, the lawsuit says building a golf course at Westport Light State Park is inconsistent with the intended purpose of conservation funds used to buy the land from former developers in 2015, stating the board in charge of the grant never gave official approval for use of funds.

Wetlands, which have flood protection, erosion control and climate change benefits, make up about two-thirds of the land in the park.

As proposed, the project, which includes a lodge, a smaller practice course and a Scottish-style links course lining the west edge and looping around the south end of the park near the lighthouse, would add public trails, invasive species removal and habitat restoration projects, according to Ryan Day, the lead developer for Westport Golf Links.

“We’ve understood the challenges of the site and the environmental sensitivity of the area, and we’ve done everything in our power in our proposal to put together an ecologically sensitive project by avoiding as many wetlands as we can and protecting certain areas,” Day said in an interview on Friday.

Day said he thought the lawsuit would “preempt” the environmental review process, including a draft environmental impact statement that will lay out “detailed analysis of the site and detailed analysis of our proposed project.” He said the links proposal already aligns with the environmental stipulations environmental groups reached with previous developers.

Knoll Lowney, an environmental lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of environmental groups, said completing lengthy environmental review would be a waste of time for a project the challengers say is already outside the bounds of existing legal restrictions.

“No tax money should be used …. basically thinking about a project that is impossible,” Lowney said.

As the challenge starts its journey in court, the State Parks Commission will meet April 11 in Yakima, when Westport Mayor Ed Welter is set to speak before the board.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.