MANSON — When Frank Vertrees purchased an expanded camping membership at Mill Bay RV Resort in 1995, he was under the assumption that it lasted through 2034.
Which, at the time, seemed sensible.
That’s what it said in his contract and that’s what was represented to Vertrees, along with about 200 others who purchased memberships in the late-80s and early-90s, from William Wapato Evans Jr, the owner of the master lease.
Only, the lease wasn’t for 50 years.
It was set for two 25-year terms, with the option for the second term to be renewed by Evans at his discretion.
That difference sparked a legal dispute that's gone on for 11 years, reaching its climax this week when a federal judge's ruling forced RV Resort members to pack up and leave.
They had until midnight Wednesday to pick up their boats, RVs, grills and other personal belongings and vacate the property because, the judge ruled in July, members have been trespassing at the park, which sits on Native American land, since 2009.
The mood at the park over the past few days has been a somber one as campers — some who had been vacationing there since the 90s — spent their final few days clearing out their space and boxing up decades of memories.
A few tears were shed and some puttered around the lot, reminiscing with one another about old stories.
Because for most members, the RV community has become an extended family and not just a spot to park their trailer.
“It isn’t just the location, it’s the community,” Vertrees said. “We could not duplicate this anywhere and it’s a very close-knit group. It’s been a great place for COVID because you can stay outside and still communicate and see each other. There have been kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids raised here and I based my retirement on being able to be over here a good chunk of the year. Now, here we sit.”
This past weekend might likely have been the final time their paths would cross, considering most live in cities scattered across Washington state.
Russ and Sheila Fode, who have been members the past 20 years spent the Tuesday afternoon clearing their deck and packing up chairs, plants and other personal items. One member had to rip out a fence post he put in to move his trailer and another had to tear out his deck.
Most hadn't planned on doing that kind of work for another 14 years.
How the deal came together
According to the July ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson, the 1984 agreement that would allow creation of the RV park was entered into between the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Evans. It was set for two 25-year terms. The deal included the option for the second term to be renewed by Evans anytime before Feb. 2, 2008 — a year before the first term expired.
Evans did so, writing a letter to the BIA in January of 1985 indicating that he wished to exercise the renewal option for the second 25-year term. The BIA never sent Evans a response but acknowledged receipt of the letter on March 18 of that year.
With Evans apparently believing that he had fulfilled his obligation, he and his sales staff started marketing private camping memberships to the public, with the BIA signing off on them. Over the next decade, more than 183 memberships were sold, with a price ranging from $5,995 to $25,000. In recent years, new members have paid three times that amount, some as high as $75,000, for a transfer of ownership.
Most of the memberships ranged on the lower end of the scale, but in 1989, Evans altered the master lease (with the approval of the BIA and other landowners) to include 40 expanded memberships for $25,000, which entitled each member to a specific piece of property until 2034, according to court documents filed in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington in a 2009 lawsuit.
Landowners also approved a change of use for the property to allow the Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation to operate a casino just north of the park. At least 35 Colville tribal members hold an interest in the land.
“Chief Evans represented to us that it lasted through 2034, and all of the paperwork that we had said it ran through 2034,” Vertrees, who is on the Mill Bay Board of Directors, said Sunday.
Colville Agency BIA Superintendent Debra Wulff did not respond to requests for comment.
A long-running legal fight
Mill Bay Members have been in litigation off and on for 16 of the past 20 years.
In 2001, members received a letter from Chief Evans, Inc. stating that the park would close at the end of the 2001 season and all contracts would expire.
So the members formed the Mill Bay Association and challenged Evans in court, fighting for two years until both sides agreed to two days of mediation in 2004. Also present at the two meetings were two BIA representatives, including William "Gene" Nicholson, then the BIA Superintendent of the Colville Agency. The Superintendent typically provides decision making, direction, public relations and Indian Affairs representation to government or other private-sector organizations.
In exchange for Evans’ agreement to leave the property “as is” until the 2034 expiration, the Members Association agreed to pay the BIA (for distribution to landowners) $25,000 per year, beginning in 2004.
No one objected and, according to court documents, after the settlement was approved by Wapato Heritage and the members, the BIA sent a letter to the other allottee landowners informing them of the court proceedings and that the court ruled the members could stay on the property until 2034.
But three years later, on Nov. 30, 2007, the BIA wrote a letter to Wapato Heritage LLC — which took over the master lease after Evans died in 2003 — stating that the master lease would expire Feb. 2, 2009.
Wapato Heritage, in turn, wrote a letter to the BIA maintaining that the lease had been renewed in 1985 with Evans’ initial letter. According to court documents, they never got a response from the BIA explaining why the lease had either not been renewed properly or (if it wasn’t) how to fix it.
So they took the BIA to court.
After a two-year legal battle, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the federal government and determined that Evans' letter had not constituted a lease renewal because he had not effectively notified the rest of the Native American landowners — something that is still disputed by Mill Bay members.
“Though the Ninth found it was not validly renewed, that does not foreclose Mill Bay members from still having the right to be on the property," said Sally Harmeling, one of the attorneys representing the Mill Bay members, in September. "And we're arguing that the government and Indian landowners are equitably estopped from kicking members off the land when they had prior representations that they could be there until 2034. That is still very much a part of this litigation and we’re still appealing it.”
After 11 years of court proceedings, Judge Peterson of Spokane ruled on July 9 that Mill Bay members “have no right to occupy any portion of the resort" after Feb. 2, 2009, and OK'd kicking them off the land.
Harmeling filed a motion that the members should be allowed to stay during the appeal process, but it was denied by Judge Peterson on Aug. 20.
Peterson ruled that Mill Bay Members were not entitled to stay and said in her order that she felt they would continue to prolong the litigation unnecessarily in order to achieve its desired outcome of remaining on the property until 2034
“Plaintiffs have been in wrongful possession of MA-8 for over 11 years, depriving Native Americans of valuable land they are entitled to use,” Peterson wrote in her decision.
The Mill Bay Members are in the process of appealing Judge Peterson’s July 9 decision, but after Wednesday, they are no longer legally allowed on the property.