Businesses due no easement, court says
The owners of three businesses filed suit against the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum last fall alleging that when the museum fenced off its back lot and cut off traffic their businesses were hurt. Customers were entering the parking lot at 12114 E. Sprague Ave., and using it to access the other businesses.
But their argument that they should have an easement on the museum’s property because they had long used it for access and parking was recently shot down by Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen.
Eitzen wrote in her opinion that Pat McIntyre of Ichabod’s Tavern, Dave Thompson of Dave’s Bar and Grill and Gary Peters and Peters Hardware did not meet two of the five requirements for a prescriptive easement. In addition, the museum has only owned the property since 2004, not for the 10 years required by law. “The only period of time where a prescriptive easement could have been attained was when the county of Spokane was the true owner,” she wrote.
Eitzen was firm in her determination in favor of the museum. “Granting a prescriptive easement over 75 percent of the defendant’s land and in turn rendering the land basically useless to the true owner would be repugnant to public policy as well as to general notions of fair and substantial justice,” she wrote.
Museum director Jayne Singleton said she had always planned outdoor exhibits at the museum and met with the neighboring business owners to tell them her plan. Right now the fenced-off portion behind the museum includes an old wagon, farming equipment, a grassy area and an old outhouse. Additional outdoor exhibits are planned, Singleton said.
Singleton said she was disappointed that she couldn’t reach an agreement with her neighbors but was actually glad when the lawsuit was filed. “We wanted to have it decided once and for all,” she said. “This is our property. Why would we not be able to develop it?”
Thompson said he participated in the lawsuit to “preserve what little business we have left,” he said. “The fundamentals of retail are traffic, traffic, traffic and parking and access and without those things we’re just done. We’ve all cut employees, our sales are down.”
Eitzen wrote in her opinion that all three businesses showed that business has been down, but said they didn’t prove that the museum’s actions caused the downturn at a time when the national economy was going down and a major road construction project was under way nearby. Thompson dismissed the judge’s argument. “She’s a judge,” he said. “She’s not in retail.”
Singleton argued in her declaration that access became “better than it has ever been” when the completion of the new Rite Aid store opened up the corner and a new access road that leads from First Avenue directly to the parking lot behind the three businesses. There also is new access off East Sprague Avenue, just east of Dave’s.
Peters said his business did pick up when access improved. “It’s still down,” he said. “We recovered a little bit, but we’re still down from where we were before the blockage.”
He didn’t expect to win the lawsuit, Peters said. He just wanted to support his neighbors. “I felt I should at least participate,” he said. “If it would have been up to me alone I wouldn’t have done it.”
In her written opinion Eitzen also dismissed several allegations raised during the trial as “red herrings.” One such allegation was that Singleton sold museum property for private gain. Singleton denied ever benefitting personally from a sale or selling a donated item without permission.
In one case she said a volunteer wanted to get rid of his own collection and asked Singleton to sell them on Ebay in exchange for the museum getting a portion of the profits. In another case, a family donated several items and gave their permission for the items to be sold to raise money, Singleton said.
A campaign kickoff event with a state senator and two state representatives several years ago was also brought up. Singleton said the event was not a fundraiser and that even if it was, hosting a fundraiser does not violate any of the conditions imposed by Spokane Valley when the property was handed over. “There’s nothing illegal about that,” she said.
Indications are that the issue may not be settled even after Eitzen’s decision. “There’s a lot of things that came out in that trial,” Thompson said. “It actually provided us with more ammunition to use down the road. We really didn’t expect to win this. Easement things are really, really hard to win. It has certainly laid the groundwork for things in the future.”
But it may be the end of the road for Peters. “I don’t think there’s anything to be done or said about it,” he said. His only options are to live with it or move, he said. “I have no plans to move.”
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