Each year, hundreds, maybe thousands of people lounge on the warm sands of Mabana Beach, splash in its sparkly waters, launch their boats through the 40-foot break in its seawall, and watch the evening sky turn alizarin above the turquoise trees of Whidbey Island and the purples of the Olympic Mountains not knowing the battle to keep Mabana Beach open to the public that took place in 1972 and the names of those heroes who fought that they might have that access they enjoy.
I remember as a child playing in the warm sand at Mabana Beach with my younger sister April…
and during my high school years sneaking out to meet a girlfriend at Mabana to kiss under the golden cliffs there.
And I faintly, ever so faintly, remember going door to door with my dad and mom, visiting with neighbors, carrying a petition to keep Mabana Beach open to the public.
This past August I listened as my uncle Robert and Aunt Sandy, who were at the epicenter of that battle, shared the story.
The battle for Mabana
Camano Island histories often refer to a situation in the 1970s when there was an uproar over the Port of Mabana that divided Islanders. But since that uproar in the mid 1970s thousands have enjoyed the warm sands of Mabana Beach, knowing nothing of the battle or the toll it took on those who fought to keep it public
A little store was built at Mabana sometime before 1946. Cabins for rent were located north of the store and inland of the road that ran along the top of the bluff. These cabins were used for such things as summer vacations and even short-stay rentals for the summer Vacation Bible School teachers who could then walk about one-quarter of a mile to the old school house where the Sunday school and church services were held. In the 1950s and 1960s, houses were built inland of the road that ran along the top of the bluff overlooking the beach and the Port of Mabana. Through the years, the county road that had led to an old dock down on the beach was maintained either by the county or by people living nearby.
The old dock that had once been the motivation to create the Port of Mabana in 1926 and where mail carriers and ferries had traveled to and from, had long since been torn down. But the Port remained, overseen by three commissioners. The beach itself was just shoreline and wetlands with driftwood accumulating at the bottom of the bluff at high tides. The beach just north of the Port was owned by Pearl Wannamaker, who was Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Washington. She allowed the public to use the beach. There was lots of parking, and the whole beach was wide open to be enjoyed.
My Uncle Robert Dodgson and his wife Sandra moved to Camano Island from their houseboat in Seattle in 1972. They had purchased the little house with beach that Robert’s Grandmother Fanny Y. Cory had owned since 1948. The first Robert and Sandra heard about the changes taking place at Mabana Beach was a cartoon in the Stanwood-Camano News that showed a picture of a concrete wall across the end of the road with people trying to look over and climb over to get to the beach. A neighbor who was a lawyer a lawyer, told Sandra that yes, a 6 foot high concrete wall with no opening for public access had been built so that you couldn’t get to the beach at all. He encouraged Sandy to get involved in regaining public access to Mabana Beach.
Robert and Sandy owned their own tidelands and had access to their beach so they didn’t need to get involved. But Robert had a history with Mabana Beach, and so was emotionally invested. He and his family and friends had used that beach since he was a child and his grandmother F.Y. Cory or “Meetsy” used to go there.
Furthermore, it was one of the few public beaches on the south end of the island that you could drive to so even people of limited mobility could get to the beach there.
There were a couple of ladies who lived in the Mabana area who also urged Sandra to get involved. When she contacted a county commissioner she learned that the county had given a developer permits to build a concrete wall across the public access to the beach and the Port of Mabana property, to fill the wetlands behind the wall to create residential property and to build houses on that tideland. No one had contacted the Port. He told Sandra that nothing could be done because all the required permits had already been issued by the county to the developer.
This all took place after the enactment of the Shoreline Management Act, passed by the Washington State Legislature in 1971 and voted on by the people in 1972. It was a law that prohibited filling tidelands to create residential property. But here the County and the developer were doing just that. It appeared that another violation of the Shoreline Management Act involved the source of the fill that was being used for the project. Allegedly a few miles away from the development, a bluff on the water was being torn down to provide that fill material.
Sandra and many other on Camano began to ask “how do we stop and reverse this?” Unfortunately though the Shoreline Management Act had been passed it did not appear to have any teeth which could compel the State to enforce it, to stop and reverse what was happening. Sandra did some legal research and provided information to others who were interested as well as the current Port Commissioners. As a result, the Commissioners asked Sandra to get involved in an official capacity and she became a Port Commissioner. She was so outspoken that soon she was asked to be the chairman who conducted the public meetings.
There was a series of large public meetings on the Island. Lots of people stood and said that it was important to keep Mabana Beach open to the public. But there were factions that were on the developer’s side. They devised a plan to quiet the opposition by suing my Uncle Robert and Aunt Sandy personally for ½ million dollars for slander. That was quite a lot of money in the 70’s. It turns out that at one of the large public meetings at the Grange, my Uncle Robert who stutters didn’t want to stand up and read his letter, so he had passed out copies of it. Robert and Sandra had to hire their own lawyer to deal with the lawsuit. The stakes were high. If they lost, Robert and Sandy might have lost everything they owned – their house, their business (at the time my uncle was designing and building remote control gliders).
The island was in an uproar. Everyone was taking sides. Emotional letters were written to the editor of the local newspaper. Personal character assassination of those speaking out against the developer was rampant. As the battle became more and more heated and controversial, many people who privately supported getting the public access reopened did not want to publicly voice their opinion for fear of reprisal. Robert and Sandra’s young daughter, my cousin, was bullied on the school bus. And one night when it was time to go home after a particularly heated public meeting, Sandra was afraid to go out to her car; she was afraid for her kids, for her family, for her personal safety.
Finally, the developer and his faction tried to recall Sandra from her post as Port Commissioner. They brought charges against her for going against her oath of office, for negligence, and anything else they could fabricate. They started a petition drive and needed a certain number of votes; but they didn’t succeed in recalling her. In fact, at one point a relative of the developer told Sandra that the law suit against her and her husband would be dropped if Sandra would resign from the Port but that only strengthened her resolve to see the public access to the beach restored.
The Port initiated a petition drive to make the developer tear down the concrete wall. Their petition to the County asked for all the concrete to be taken down. And based on the Shoreline Management Act, the land should have been restored to its original condition as natural tidelands. But the county would not take that stand and the State would not enforce its Shoreline Management Act. And all the time this petition drive was going on, the developer was continuing to build houses on the filled land.
The County knew they were in trouble. They had issued the permits to the developer and the developer had spent a lot of money on the development to that point. So the County made a half-hearted compromise. They said they would tear a walkway through the concrete wall at the end of the County road. The Port said that that wasn’t good enough. In the end, the Port had no money for a lawsuit to sue the State and the County and without a lawsuit they couldn’t get them to enforce the Shoreline Management Act and return the beach to its prior condition but they were able to get the County to remove a sizable section of the concrete wall and at least re-open the beach to the public.
With public access to the beach restored, Sandra resigned her position as a Port Commissioner and when she resigned, the developer dropped his lawsuit against her.
It was a hard fought victory of sorts for those involved and it took passage of time and an influx of new people onto the Island to smooth out the hard feelings that had been generated by the uproar.
Even though this battle was just a little blip in my childhood, I’m growing in thankfulness for those who were willing to pay the cost to keep Mabana Beach accessible to the public.
Here are some pictures of my family enjoying this great beach over the years.