By Nancy Adams
Cui bono?
It is indeed an old Latin phrase, one that is still used today in legal terms. Its meaning? Who stands to gain, usually from a crime, and therefore might have been responsible for it.
Let me tell you a story about the small town of Eatonville, nestled in the shadow of Mount Rainier. This town boasts a 3,000-foot, paved runway that has an unusual public-private partnership. The airstrip itself is divided into three parcels. The northernmost parcel (about 400 feet long) is owned by Eatonville itself, while the large bulk of the strip is in two parcels and owned by a private party. The strip is listed as municipal, it is open to the public, has an airport overlay zone, but is mostly under private ownership.
The Eatonville airport, like many other small airports, has been under siege from developers for the past decade. At one time, Harold (Hal) Burlingame (the owner of the two largest parcels that make up the airport) thought about donating the airstrip to the town, since it already owned the northernmost parcel. He offered to donate the remaining two parcels, and the town considered it. But developers sought to build on all the land around the airport. They wanted to pack the homes in with greater and greater density – smaller and smaller backyards, as they were doing in other neighborhoods. The town acquiesced, greedy for the permit money. And for a while, permit money flowed readily.
But then the economy changed and the permit money dried up and the town found itself with a lifestyle it could no longer afford. When the town allowed a development to encroach on airport space, fellow pilot Steve Van Cleve sued the town, and an airport overlay district was formed, limiting the types of development that can be placed around the airport. No high-rises, no big apartment complexes or half-acre lot sizes, but light industry and aviation-related businesses are allowed.
So the town decided to let the airport languish by inactivity. No one who worked for the town ever sought out any businesses that would be a compatible fit for that airport.
Viewing all of this, Mr. Burlingame withdrew his offer of a donation of the two large parcels that make up the vast majority of the strip. His widow, Sharon Burlingame, said that when a Town Council member called Hal to tell him that the papers for the donation were ready to be signed, Hal's answer was not just “No”, but “Oh, hell no.”
Fast-forward a few more years, and Hal succumbed to the ravages of old age and died in 2012. Mrs. Burlingame inherited the airport along with the rest of her husband's holdings. While not a pilot herself, she fully supported her husband's vision of the airport.
Then a developer purchased land on the south end of the airport. He wanted to build much denser housing, put in mini-storage units on a piece of ground directly next to the airstrip itself, willfully exposing the public to hazards that an airport can produce.
The town chose to disregard the town's Planning Commission recommendations. They chose to disregard the Open Public Meeting Act that the state has in place to guarantee a free and open discussion of matters that pertain to all. They closeted in a questionable executive session, and suddenly council members, who had pledged to support an open public airport, changed their votes. The developer got his wishes.
Soon after, airport residents who had been told that they could make certain changes and improvements to their properties were denied permits or expensive limitations were suddenly added to their permits. When one property owner, Rick Adams, questioned the town administration's sudden about-face and asked town administrator Abby Gribi if she knew what he was trying to do on his property (pour a simple, concrete slab in his hangar), he was told by Gribi that he “would do nothing” on his property.
“I admit that I was a little taken aback,” Adams said. “After all, what I was asking to do is perfectly permissible under the town code, and it is private property. I started to wonder just what the administration was up to.”
That very next night, the town held a meeting of the Airport Commission (a town committee whose positions are filled by volunteers who have knowledge of airport issues and who make recommendations to the administration and town council concerning the airport). Gribi and Mayor Mike Schaub attended this open public meeting.
Gribi then proceeded to pass out a copy of a quit claim deed to committee members. This deed, purportedly signed by Hal Burlingame, was for the middle parcel of the airstrip adjacent to the small parcel that the town owns. Gribi claimed that she had found the document while researching other matters of the airport. She said that the town Finance Committee had instructed her to pursue the matter, and that the council would meet to accept the deed and execute the document. A citizen at the meeting questioned the legitimacy of a 10-year-old document where the person signing the document is deceased, but Gribi stated that she ran the document by the town's attorney and had been assured that it was an “executable document.” She said the town planned to do just that – execute the document. After all, she said it had been notarized and was a done deal. It was just a matter of going through the appropriate steps.
The next day, Landings at Mount Rainier LLC filed their own Quit Claim deed with the Pierce County Auditor acquiring the two parcels that Sharon Burlingame owned, including the middle parcel that the town was attempting to acquire.
“The minute I saw that 'Quit Claim deed' from the town, I was suspicious,” Mrs. Burlingame said. “To begin with, it was only for the one parcel. When Hal offered to give the property to the town, he was going to donate both parcels. He would never have just signed off on the one parcel.  When Bobbi Allison, (a town council member at the time of his original offer,) called to tell him that the papers for his donation were ready to sign, he flatly refused to sign them. He rescinded his offer because he was concerned that the town would not honor his gift as an airport. Plus, the notary portion of this deed copy was on a different page than the actual signature. All in all, I considered it a questionable document from the first.”     
At the same time, Mrs. Burlingame admitted that she was concerned enough that the town would try to execute the document that she wanted to try to prevent it. “I considered a lawsuit to get an injunction, but that could have led to another, more expensive suit. It is my property, and it appeared to me that they were just going to try to take it from me. Hal wanted, and I want this property to remain an airport.”
Adams agreed with her. “What kind of community just takes a widow's property without her consent?” he asked. “That is why our LLC agreed to take the airport. Our deed states that we only own the property as long as it is an airport. If it ceases to be an airport, then it reverts to Mrs. Burlingame or her heirs. She retains any development rights. We consider ourselves to be stewards of that airport, not owners.”
A few days later, Byron Adams, another member of Rainier Landings LLC, asked to view the original of the copy of the Quit Claim deed that Gribi passed out at the Airport Commission meeting. After a week of searching for the document, Town Clerk Kathy Linnemeyer stated that she could not provide an original of the document.
“How were they going to execute a copy of a Quit Claim deed?” Rick Adams asked. “To be filed, a deed either has to be an original or a certified copy. A copy can only be certified by a notary who states they have seen the original, and that this is an exact duplicate. The town has never been able to provide an original copy.”
At a later meeting, Gribi stated that the town already owned the northernmost and the southernmost parcel. While she was quickly corrected that the town only owns the northernmost of the three parcels, it does possibly provide an answer as to why a copy of a Quit Claim deed provided by the town referenced only the center parcel, Adams said. To facilitate closure, all the administration probably believed they needed was to own the center parcel, Adams added.
Allison, the former council member, said bluntly that “the deed they say Hal signed is a fake. Both Tom Smallwood (who was mayor at that time) and I talked to Hal about this same issue and after some deliberation, he said a resounding no.”
Since Rainier Landings LLC announced that the airport ownership had changed hands, the Town Council and administration have been in a visible uproar. The mayor canceled the next airport advisory board meeting. Council members tried to accuse Rick Adams (a member of the Airport Advisory Board) of committing an ethics violation by purchasing the airport property “out from under” the town.
Mayor Schaub has repeatedly stated that the airport is of no benefit to the town. If that is the case, why is the town trying so hard to acquire it?
Cui bono, indeed.

Nancy Adams is part of Landings at Mount Rainier LLC, the ownership group that acquired Swanson Field.