Permaculture property a neighborhood conundrum

Woman, 85, gets West Hazel Dell home back two years after donating it to land trust

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Beverly Doty has two tons of work ahead of her. One ton is out in the yard. The other ton is inside the Hazel Dell home she just returned to after a two-year absence.

An air of mingled hope and tragedy hangs over the place. Doty, 85, slowly limps around cardboard boxes indoors and an overgrown jungle outdoors. She points out neglect and disrepair with a clenched jaw.

"They didn't know how to use it," Doty mutters as she surveys the south-facing porch greenhouse, overstuffed with tools and garden equipment. Meanwhile the outdoor landscape has exploded from a chaotic but purposeful "urban permaculture" garden, once the talk of the neighborhood, to a weedy bramble that's generating buzz for an entirely different reason.

The place looks awful. Doty knows it. But after two years parked at a nursing facility, she also knows she's home again. "I'm just going to keep doing what I do," she said.

Complaints, conditions

Doty said she bought the place on Northwest 96th Street in 1970 with her husband, a military man, but they moved around too much to settle down for years. Eventually Doty, single again, started developing permaculture on the property.

"You let everything self-sow," she said. Permaculture means letting nature do its thing, with some careful tweaking. It means incorporating natural growth cycles and patterns for maximum energy efficiency, organic food growth and wildlife habitat. It means birds, bees and butterflies; native shrubbery and tall bamboo, fruit trees and vegetable beds; rain barrels and recycling, compost heaps and chipping piles.

In Hazel Dell, it also means your yard doesn't look anything like your neighbors' yards. Even at its best, Doty's landscape could look pretty wild — "to the uneducated eye," she insisted.

"The problem with being first to do something is there are complaints," Doty said. To quiet neighborhood grumbling, Doty offered quarterly educational tours of "Bev's Place Organic Permaculture Living Home Site." She rented out her basement apartment in exchange for labor in the garden. "For 18 years, my retirement activity was demonstrating permaculture," she said.

Longtime West Hazel Dell neighborhood chairwoman Ila Stanek said in an email that Doty's property "wasn't nearly the problem a couple of neighbors make it out to be." Doty "worked very hard at it, and while she was there it worked. As her strength begin to fade it became more difficult. Since she moved it has been sadly allowed to go to waste, seed, hell (you choose)."

Two years ago, facing health challenges but determined to see Bev's Place remain an example of green living in the city, Doty looked for options — in the form of dedicated people who would carry on her work. She wanted to donate her property to the Evergreen Sustainable Agricultural Land Trust, a Washington State nonprofit, but learned that Bev's Place didn't quite measure up to ESALT's technical standards. So she turned to a sister nonprofit, south of the river.

The Oregon Sustainable Agricultural Land Trust took the donation. The suggestion initially came from Will Newman II, now the former executive director of OSALT, who told Doty "he would operate and maintain it the way I did. He was getting ambitious to expand into Washington," she said.

That ambition appears to have run up against Doty's two strict stipulations. One was that the resident farmers who'd work and live in the place be Washingtonians. The other stipulation was that those workers be "permaculture certified."

Neither condition was met. OSALT couldn't find permaculture-certified Clark County citizens for the project. Three Oregonians moved in and, according to earlier coverage, started imposing what they considered some necessary order on Doty's chaotic landscape. And Doty grew furious at the whole situation — including her next-door neighbor, Tom Tucker, who served as an unpaid liaison to OSALT.

Eyes and ears

Tucker, a retired Methodist minister, inherited the house beside Doty's from his great aunt and uncle, moved in with his wife upon retirement in 2010, and was willing to be Doty's "eyes and ears" as OSALT took on Bev's Place. "If there were issues, I could talk to OSALT about it," he said.

There were issues. Doty complains that her property was damaged and degraded by the three Oregon volunteers who rented the house and worked its garden until earlier this year. All three were twentysomethings whose lives were based in Oregon -- at jobs and college. As far as Doty's concerned, they were the wrong people. She blames Tucker, her next door neighbor, directly.

Tucker said he feels like a lightning rod for Doty's anger. "She was mad at OSALT before OSALT ever got the property," he said. "As upset as she was, I didn't get why she went ahead with it." He walked through the house with OSALT at the start of its occupancy, and found it in terrible shape then, he said.

"We had to do a complete cleaning, top to bottom," he said. The upstairs got a badly needed coat of paint, Tucker said; Doty told The Columbian she is seething over that paint job.

Bigger problems emerged. OSALT belatedly discovered that its Oregon nonprofit status didn't shield it from owing Washington property taxes on Bev's Place, according to board member Tom Birzer. Furthermore, Tucker said, there was supposed to be a strong educational component to Bev's Place, and "it became pretty obvious that OSALT didn't have the time and energy and leadership to make that happen."

Birzer has nothing but "kudos for Bev," he said. "She paved the way for doing something in a suburban setting that's not typically done. We were excited to accept her property. We did run into an issue with property tax exemption. But we hope for the best for Bev and the site. We'd like to see it permanently protected, just like she would."

What next?

Doty endured abdominal surgery and lived for two years at retirement community Glenwood Place. From there, she battled to rescind her donation to OSALT. That fight never reached any courtroom, but in the end — late February of this year — Doty signed some paperwork, paid the princely sum of $10, and was handed back her property deed.

While determined to retake command of Bev's Place, Doty said she's definitely challenged by physical frailty and some memory loss. Friends, family and contractors are helping her get settled again, but what Doty really wants is a permaculture-certified Clark County farmer who'll move into her basement apartment and work off the rent with gardening labor.

But is that basement unit legal? Doty is worried. She tells of a neighbor who wants to sell but has to tear out a "daylight basement" apartment first. What's up with that? Many neighbors want to know, she added, because this whole area tilts downhill toward Cougar Creek, making separate-entry basement units common here. "We all live on a slope," she said.

There's no clear answer; it depends upon timing and other details. Doty's house, finished basement and all, was built in 1968, according to county property records — but Doty said she installed the kitchen later. She's not exactly sure when. County records say nothing about her basement appliances. Washington State's Labor and Industries database, which could contain clues about electrical permits, also comes up empty.

Clark County's single-family zoning code became law in November 1977, according to planner Richard Daviau; it bans two or more dwellings on a single-family lot. The most recent update to that code allows "accessory dwelling units" that can include everything but a working stove, chief building official Jim Muir said.

The county's Community Development "common questions" Web page says plans for mother-in-law apartments are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but there's no wiggle room regarding stoves: "Separate living quarters within a residence may be allowed in some zones. A separate kitchen, specifically cooking equipment, is not allowed."

Doty said she remembers being warned by the West Hazel Dell Neighborhood Association not to install the full kitchen because it would violate code. She did it anyway. As far as zoning goes, Doty said she's ready for another battle.

"I'm tough," she said. "How do you think I survived this long?"