By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
A recent Court of Appeals ruling granted a group known as Friends of Mukai the opportunity for a trial court to hear its case against the current owners of a King County landmark. The Friends of Mukai argue that the Mukai House and Garden on Vashon Island should be open to the public, and that its owners have neglected the site.
Masahiro Mukai was a pioneering businessman who owned a strawberry farm on Vashon Island. It became one of the region’s most lucrative and innovative farms. Mukai’s father, an immigrant from Japan, purchased the 40 acres of land in his son’s name in 1926. His son was born in the United States, and in those days, only American citizens could legally own land.
The farm became one of the first in the nation to experiment with freezing berries, so they could be sold outside the local region. It drew many Japanese immigrants, as they strove to make their way in America by working on the farm.
The Mukai farm was designated a King County landmark in 1993, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.
Washington taxpayers spent $460,000 from the county, state, and federal government, $300,000 of which was used to buy the property by the nonprofit group Island Landmarks, whose mission is “to preserve the historic architecture and landscape of Vashon and Maury Islands.” The money was given to the organization to ensure the property was “preserved and accessible to the public.”
At the time of the purchase of the Mukai House and Garden, Island Landmarks was headed by Mary Matthews and Nelson Happy, a married couple. Friends of Mukai, a faction of Island Landmarks that was formed by a group of Vashon Islanders concerned over the apparent neglect of the property, claim that Matthews and Happy, now living in Texas, took advantage of the process.
According to the Friends of Mukai, the historic property is not being used for the purpose for which it was intended. A recent investigative piece by a local network station asserted that the owners had used the property for their own personal purposes, and that very few people have been able to visit the property since Island Landmarks took over. A legal complaint was filed as a result.
The lawsuit was based on whether a June 2013 meeting was rightfully called to oust Matthews, Happy, and other officers in charge of Island Landmarks. According to court documents, Matthews and Happy “personally advanced more than $300,000 to pay the operating expenses of Island Landmarks, including real property taxes, utilities, insurance, and labor to maintain the house and garden.”
According to Friends of Mukai, Matthews and Happy “were ousted from the board because over the past 10 years, they ignored the requirements and obligations that they had accepted as conditions of receiving public funds, used the house and public resources for their own convenience and enjoyment, and neglected the upkeep.”
The attorney for Matthews and Happy contend that the Friends of Mukai did not follow the rightful process described in the bylaws in calling the meeting to vote on dismissing the officers. Originally, the Friends of Mukai had its claims dismissed. However, in late December, the appeal granted new life for the organization and its claims.
At one point, Matthews and Nelson attempted to sell the property, indicating that they preferred someone else to take over, such as the National Park Service. But a real estate transaction with the National Park Service would prove to be almost impossible. “It’s not going to happen,” said Lynn Grenier, the lead attorney for Friends of Mukai. “It would require years and years of legislation.”
Grenier said it would require an Act of Congress for the National Park Service to acquire the property, deeming the possibility unlikely.
“We’re not particularly insisting on being the owner. In fact, we would be thrilled and delighted if a governmental agency or historical preservation society took ownership,” said Glenda Pearson, president of Friends of Mukai. Pearson indicated that the group would like to be involved with restoring Mukai Farms into a place to be enjoyed by the public. She said Friends of Mukai would like to organize and manage programs, set up a library, and “make the property vibrant and alive as it was in 1933.”
While both parties await word from the trial court about an assignment of their case to a judge, Grenier stated that the group is “always open to settlement,” citing that it has had several meetings with Robert Krinsky, attorney for Matthews and Happy, although nothing has come of them.
“A war between friendlies,” is how Krinsky characterized the legal battle. Krinsky said the court’s recent ruling was “not really all that surprising. Although we believe that we are correct and respect the ruling, we are back to square one.” He refutes the characterization that Matthews and Happy took advantage of the system and are “rich Texans.”
“This is a strange case in the sense that all that are involved love Mukai,” Krinsky said, adding that both parties feel deeply about preserving the Mukai Farm and Garden, and describing the lawsuit as a draw.
“We would like to settle the matter in a way that is graceful and protects the interests of my client and Mukai Farm and Garden,” he said. (end)
Jason Cruz can be reached at email@example.com.