Keeping a dream of Weber Arboretum alive

Trails mastermind steps in — moves in — to transform historic waterfront acreage

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

You can help

To lend a hand, e-mail Kelly Punteney at kellypunteney@com... or call 360-921-8374.

To make a donation, contact:

The Parks Foundation, http://www.parksf... or 360-487-8370

The Community Foundation, http://www.cfsww.org or 360-694-2550

Fire up your imagination and roll up your sleeves as you survey this weedy, wandering waterfront property. That’s what Kelly Punteney did.

As a Vancouver city staffer, Punteney spent years envisioning and building a connected system of local trails; he left the city in 2007 but he’s still working on behalf of public parks as a newly appointed Washington State Parks and Recreation commissioner. That’s a volunteer position, by the way.

Here’s another volunteer gig: Punteney is acting as resident caretaker for a historic — but overgrown and undernourished — six-acre site on the Vancouver waterfront that was bequeathed to Clark College as an arboretum and environmental classroom. This year he moved into a drafty house on the land and started fighting back weeds and deterioration on his own dime.

It’s not like Punteney, 63, needs the burden. A landscape architect, he holds down a day job with Colf Construction as a project manager. He just finished renovating a classic home on East Reserve Street, where he still plans to live one day — for now he’s leased it out. He means to spend the next three to five years devoting himself to saving the building and grounds of the oldest private home in Clark County. He aims to convince the city of Vancouver to adopt the property, open it to the public and link it to the growing waterfront trail he helped create.

Cheering him on is Clark College Foundation President Lisa Gibert, who said the college is dedicated to minimally maintaining the property, but can’t do more than that. The days of trying to use the place as an environmental classroom are over, she said.

“We have utilized every strategy we could think of to make this work,” Gibert said. “We don’t have the capacity to do this.”

The unkempt grounds, pocked with mole holes, crawling with blackberry vines and dotted with crumbly structures, prompts one to wonder at Punteney’s enthusiasm.

“How could you not be motivated by this place?” he retorts. “I have got to make this work.”

Making it work during an era of squashed public budgets means enlisting the community’s help in a hundred different ways. Punteney scheduled an open house last weekend so everyone could explore the site and the possibilities.

Arboretum, cemetery

John Stanger, a millwright for the Hudson’s Bay Company, settled on this sloping acreage in the 1840s, and completed a simple two-room gabled house out of cedar planks in 1867.

“It was known as the Stanger Mansion,” Punteney said. “It was the Cadillac of its time.”

The house is listed both on Clark County’s Heritage Register and the National Register of Historic Places; it’s a rare surviving example of pioneer plank construction and is considered historically significant for its association with the earliest period of settlement in Clark County. The street address is 9215 S.E. Evergreen Highway — where it provides some breathing room amidst a parade of modern mansions and security gates.

“The property is one of the last historic houses in an area characterized by large modern homes and under intensive development pressure,” the National Register says.

In the 1950s Dr. Vinson Weber, a dentist and teacher at what’s now Oregon Health & Science University, bought the property with his wife, Jane, and spent the next four decades lovingly tending the house and grounds.

The Webers lived in a newer house, built and expanded throughout the years, yards northeast of the original Stanger building. That’s Punteney’s temporary abode now. It’s rickety, uninsulated and probably worth demolition, but Punteney is jury-rigging some improvements and hunkering down for a long stay anyway.

After Jane, who taught English and drama at Hudson’s Bay High School, died in 1974, the dentist and nature lover hatched the plan of making the place a memorial arboretum. He offered Vancouver a trail easement in exchange for sewer upgrades but the city refused; Weber went sour on the city and turned instead to Clark College, which agreed to take on the property and the project. Weber bequeathed not just land but an endowment of $346,000.

But wary by that time of deals with bureaucracies, Punteney said, Weber added a special incentive for the college to take his bequest seriously: He had himself and his wife buried on-site.

“He was smart enough to build in some backups, and his final backup was himself,” Punteney said. The Clark College Foundation had to get a permit from the city to own and operate a cemetery in accordance with state law. Today there’s an attractive memorial bench and gravesite steps from the home where the Webers lived.

Finding a purpose

Weber’s worries over his arboretum dream were prescient. Clark College held a handful of classes there, from environmental education to forensics (the place was set up as a crime scene for students to pore over), and further schemes were hatched — like a retreat center or residence for visiting faculty — but as time wore on nothing seemed practical, Said Gibert, Clark College Foundation president. The endowment didn’t provide enough interest for modern facilities like restrooms and parking lots, she said, let alone building restoration; just mowing and maintaining the place costs $10,000 to $15,000 per year.

“We just kept trying and trying to figure out how to utilize this arboretum for a priority purpose at Clark, but it never fit,” Gibert said. “When we are looking at record enrollments and all aspects of running an institution of higher education, can we honestly say this is our highest priority and the best use of our donor dollars?

“Ultimately Clark came to the determination … that it just wasn’t going to work for us,” she said.

The place was open to the public by appointment, but it was never much to look at. A resident caretaker kept things under control — just barely — until late in 2009, when Punteney received “a courtesy call” from Bob Knight, then president of Clark College, warning him that the college foundation was preparing to vote that it “could not honor” Weber’s gift.

That doesn’t mean the college would sell the land. Gibert said that can’t happen because of provisions in Weber’s will — a separate board of arboretum trustees would have to agree — but she acknowledged that development interest in the waterfront parcel has always been keen.

“I can’t tell you how many developers I have had come calling,” she said. “I say no, it’s encumbered. It will never be built upon unless the trustees determine they just can’t make it work.”

But Punteney, panicked, decided he had to step in personally. On May 1 of this year, he moved into the Weber property. “I said, let me try to manage the property. Let me start making progress on this vision,” he said.

The foundation said OK — but gave him no stipend or budget. “I got it as is. I got a $500 allowance to buy a mower,” he said.

Now, Punteney is beating the bushes for volunteer help of all kinds: weed wackers and landscapers, Boy Scouts and builders, green thumbs and green donors. Last year he won a county historic restoration grant that got a new roof for the old Stanger Mansion. Last month, a troop of Boy Scouts designed and built a sturdy foot bridge across the stream on the property. Anyone out there got some loaner goats for a stint of organic weed destruction?

“It’s typical Kelly,” said prominent local parks booster Florence Wager. “The bigger the job, the more he likes it. He is as tenacious as can be. He sees the promise of this, and that’s the driver. He never gives up.”

Community gardens

Wager, who recently enjoyed the mega-honor of receiving not just an award but an award series — her namesake is the Florence B. Wager award for service to parks and recreation — also isn’t giving up.

She loves Punteney’s approach to making something like Weber’s arboretum vision come true: enlisting lots of community partners to take responsibility for pieces of the project, and especially for gardening clubs to create a series of small “vignette” gardens on the site. Her Columbia View Garden Club may be first to sign up, she said.

“I can envision 30 or 40 little gardens all along this stream,” Punteney said. “It could be all community gardens.”

Punteney still sees the site as a natural for classes, meetings, historical demonstrations, even vacation getaways and weddings. Several state parks are generating revenue by renting out accommodations in this way, notes the state parks commissioner.

Ultimately, Punteney must convince Vancouver policymakers to adopt the property and link it to the waterfront trail. He’s hoping for a gentlemen’s agreement — that is, no money involved — transferring the property from Clark College to the city. That could take years, he said.

“We really need it to be owned by the city as part of the parks department. But it’s complicated, it’s political, it’s all that,” he said.

Gibert agrees with city ownership — but she emphasized that Clark College will continue to maintain the site in the meantime. Otherwise, she said, the best it can do is spin the property off as an independent nonprofit.

“I am just thrilled with what Kelly is doing down there,” she said. “He has been such a strong proponent for parks and trails, and his vision looks good. Finally it looks like we’re going to get this whole project going down the right path.”

“Preservation and improvement of assets like the Weber Arboretum requires leadership, vision and resources. The vision is there and the leadership is maturing,” Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said in an e-mail. What’s missing, of course, is the money, he added.

So Punteney presses on, making the place look good as soon as it can. He’s got more projects in mind for the Scouts who built that “class-act bridge,” he said; he’s eager to outline garden plots with the load of big decorative rocks he’s purchased; a landscaping company is stepping up with some free yard services.

Wildflowers Punteney planted near the roadway are in bloom.

“I feel like, if we want to show people it can be something, we’ve got to get some momentum going first,” he said. “We’re taking baby steps now. We’d like to move faster.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.