Judge rules against Mountaineers in land dispute

Days after the Kitsap Forest Theater announced its 2024 season shows, a Sept. 1 ruling in the U.S. District Court put the fate of the outdoor amphitheater’s productions in limbo.

The Mountaineers, the nonprofit that owns the historic theater, had maintained access via a lengthy, winding dirt pathway on their property. However, a back road used by the organization for disability access and service to the backstage area was put under lock and key days before the opening of its 100th anniversary season last year.

The nonprofit Keta Legacy Foundation, or “The Mountaineers Foundation,” which owns the surrounding Rhododendron Preserve, had done so under claims that The Mountaineers had no reasonable access through the road after expiration of a temporary agreement in December of last year.

A temporary restraining order was granted to The Mountaineers, providing them access for their centennial celebration while claims of existing easement rights through the preserve were explored by courts.

U.S District Judge Robert Lasnik’s decision sided with Keta, stating The Mountaineers had failed to establish existence of an easement. An Open Space Agreement from 1980 was cited by the judge, as it had been developed during a time The Mountaineers had ownership of the Preserve. The judge subsequently agreed with Keta’s argument that no easement could be established in this agreement, as it was property of The Mountaineers and later donated to Keta in 1985.

“We are happy to have the issue of land access resolved by the court in our favor,” Keta president Jeff Wirtz says in a statement. “We can now move forward with clear expectations on The Mountaineers’ ability to use foundation land and their responsibilities while visiting.”

Mountaineers CEO Tom Vogl says in a Sept. 5 news release that the decision calls into question what future access to the theater will look like. “We’re disappointed that Keta’s actions have led to this outcome, but we will continue working to try to ensure that future productions at Kitsap Forest Theater will not be disrupted,” he said.

Even so, The Mountaineers and those involved with the Kitsap Forest Theater are working to evaluate alternatives on their own property that address the challenge of transporting guests who need extra assistance to the theater. The dirt pathway is fairly steep and creates a safety hazard for those who are mobility-challenged. Set building and easier access for emergency response are also cited by Vogl as challenges.

Despite this decision and another on the horizon concerning the two organizations’ ongoing legal dispute concerning the “Mountaineers” trademark, both sides have also expressed interest in returning to the negotiating table.

Vogl said he received a message from Wirtz Sept. 1 in the interest of meeting later in the month to discuss a possible settlement.

Wirtz called it Keta “extending an olive branch” to The Mountaineers. “We are committed to working in good faith to find a middle ground that benefits both organizations and meets the foundation’s goal to preserve an amazing natural landscape for people and for salmon,” he added. “Our hope is we can move past this and continue to do the good work for which both organizations are known and our donors expect.”

The two organizations are set to begin meeting Sept. 22-23, according to The Mountaineers. Vogl said his side has entered into a confidentiality agreement for the negotiations.

“While we won’t be able to share with our community anything substantive about our upcoming settlement discussions (except whether or not they were successful), I can personally say that we’ll do everything we can to resolve this dispute amicably,” he said. “We do recognize, though, that it may require the judge’s decision on the trademark issues to achieve a final resolution.”

The next trial between the two nonprofits is set for March 2024.