Thirty-five years ago, when the U.S. Bureau of Prisons decided it no longer made sense to operate McNeil Island as a federal prison, people in the South Sound let loose with a flurry of ideas about the island’s future.
Some wanted to build a bridge from the mainland and develop it. Others wanted a public park. Descendants of pioneers forced off the island by the feds in the 1920s and ’30s wanted to move back to their old family homesteads.
Some Tacoma boosters thought the island would be an ideal place for the next World’s Fair.
As it turned out, the idea that prevailed turned out to be among the least practical.
Convinced it could make a prison accessible only by boat or aircraft work out financially – something the federal government had been unable to do – the state took over the island in 1981 and invested more than $100 million in infrastructure improvements.
Last year, the state gave up the effort and cut its losses, shutting down the prison for good.
That stopped an $8.6 million annual drain on the state budget and once again put the future of McNeil Island up for grabs.
This time around there’s been a new flurry of ideas, ranging from bulldozing all buildings and letting the island go back to nature, to turning the prison into a kooky resort where guests could bed down in a historic prison cell once inhabited by Charles Manson or the Birdman of Alcatraz and eat in the prison cafeteria.
This month, the state Office of Financial Management launched a $100,000 study designed to help determine what should be done with the island.
Beginning this week, researchers will spend five weeks contacting dozens of public and private groups with interests in the island, seeking ideas and gathering data.
The groups include the Nisqually, Squaxin Island and Puyallup Indian tribes; former residents; historic preservationists; environmentalists; former prison employees and tourism boosters, as well as a half-dozen state agencies, Pierce County and various other local jurisdictions.
“McNeil Island is a major area in transition in South Puget Sound,” said state Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, one of the legislators who pushed hardest to put $100,000 in the state budget for the study. “It’s important to do a really good planning process.”
While not everyone’s idea of an ideal tenant, having a prison on McNeil for 136 years saved it from the urbanization that transformed the rest of Puget Sound.
The 4,445-acre island – an area six times the size of Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park – has no stoplights, no subdivisions, no stores. The state still operates its Special Commitment Center for civilly committed sexual offenders on McNeil, but the residents are confined to an 87-acre parcel, leaving most of the island unoccupied.
Its beaches are free of bulkheads, and the largest seal rookery in southern Puget Sound is located off its north coast.
“It’s been in sort of a time warp,” said state Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, who worked with Fraser to find money for the study.
“My concern is that we do something precipitously out there without thinking it through,” Carrell said. “I’m a big believer in getting folks together and talking about it.”
When the study is presented to Gov. Chris Gregoire and legislators in October, it won’t contain a conclusion about what should happen on McNeil.
The process instead amounts to a study for further study. The idea is to gather facts, sort through layers of complicating issues and present the options that are permissible under rules laid down when the federal government turned the land over to the state.
Any changes in use will have to be approved by the U.S. General Services Administration, which manages federal land transactions.
There’s no shortage of complications.
“This is really a fascinating set of complicating issues – social, cultural, political and legal,” said Ann Sweeney, the Office of Financial Management analyst managing the McNeil Island study. “I’m trying to ensure we are gathering the facts and the data, doing our best to analyze them and being able to present what are the best options for the future.”
“I don’t want anybody to be left out,” Sweeney said. “At this point, anything is open to throw on the table.”
WHO OWNS WHAT?
The complications begin with the basic question of who owns what.
When the federal government left McNeil, it disposed of the island as “surplus property,” a federally mandated process that left some strings attached.
In 1984, the federal government deeded 3,119 acres, or about 70 percent of the island, to the state Department of Game (now the Department of Fish and Wildlife) and 1,326 acres, or about 30 percent, to the state Department of General Administration for operation of prison facilities by the state Department of Corrections.
The deeds required the land be used only for correctional purposes or wildlife conservation.
In 2001, the federal GSA agreed to modify the deed to 87 acres in the middle of the island to allow the state to locate a holding facility for violent sex offenders civilly committed after serving their prison time.
The Special Commitment Center opened in 2004 and is run by the state Department of Social and Health Services. It’s not a prison and isn’t part of the state’s corrections system. It remains fully operational and houses more than 300 residents.
From an ownership standpoint, that creates a problem.
The DSHS is managing the old prison properties, which include a patchwork of land throughout the island formerly used to support the prison – sewage treatment facilities, a dam and water supply system, old prison farms, docks and more than 50 houses.
Because that property no longer is used for corrections, it puts the state out of compliance with terms in the federal deed.
“When the parcels are no longer used for their intended purposes, the property reverts to the federal government,” Sweeney said. “At this point, it’s not absolutely clear who owns what on the island.”
If all or part of the island does revert back to the federal government, it could open the possibility of competing claims from South Sound Indian tribes.
The Puyallup Tribe successfully made a similar argument after its 1976 takeover of Tacoma’s Cushman Hospital, a federal facility that had been turned over to the state for use as a jail and treatment center for juvenile delinquents.
Claims on McNeil by former homesteaders and their heirs didn’t go far last time the island was up for grabs, but that has not kept them from trying again.
Gerald Larson is a former Tacoma Chamber of Commerce president whose grandparents homesteaded on McNeil Island’s Larson’s Point in 1899. He says his family’s property was confiscated illegally and that returning it is a matter of fairness.
“My grandparents were forced to give up 30 acres of priceless real estate and everything they had worked for, for 4,700 bucks,” Larson said. “It broke their hearts, and they never really recovered.”
IN THE MEANTIME
The Office of Financial Management’s study is supposed to be finished in October, but further planning will cost more money, which has yet to be appropriated, and could take years.
The GSA’s rules governing surplus real estate require that the property be used for “public benefit.” Specified uses include not only prisons and wildlife refuges, but also public health facilities (which is how the Special Commitment Center was approved), parks, historic monuments, ports, airports and homeless assistance.
The GSA is being patient, Sweeney said, but there are limits to how long the planning can take.
“There’s no answer to how much time we have as long as we’re making substantial progress,” Sweeney said.
Meanwhile, the heat has been turned off in the prison and at most of the other structures on the island. The state doesn’t have enough money to adequately maintain the buildings or protect them from vandalism.
DSHS is watching over the island, but the agency isn’t equipped for law enforcement and hasn’t maintained the vigilance of the Corrections Department when McNeil housed as many as 1,300 prisoners.
Carrell said that makes the island vulnerable to vandalism and theft.
“We need to be very concerned,” he said. “Now that the DSHS is running the place, instead of having a watchdog out there, we’ve got kind of a golden retriever.”
“We’ll have kids out there partying, maybe cooking meth,” Carrell predicted. “It’s a patchwork of who’s responsible. Fish and Wildlife doesn’t have the boats to adequately patrol the area.”
Deputy Wildlife Director Greg Schirato said there has been some trespassing and at least one vandalism incident on the island since the prison closed a little over a year ago.
“They broke into a building that had been closed,” he said. “There was no substantial damage; they just broke some windows.”
Schirato said his agency has no staff members assigned to the island, but it does run regular marine patrols. State wildlife biologists working with seals on the protected rookery off the island’s northern coast provide most of Fish and Wildlife’s presence, he said.
SAVE THE BUILDINGS?
Opinions vary on how many of the buildings on McNeil Island are worth saving.
After it took over the prison, the state invested $90 million in five new medium-security residential units, each housing 256 inmates, a 129-person segregation unit and an inmate services building. Shortly before the prison closed, the Corrections Department had just finished a $2 million renovation of many of the 50 residences once used by prison employees and their families.
“We spent a horrendous amount of money in the two years before closing that place down,” Carrell said. “Things will go back to nature if we just stop doing what we’ve been doing out there. I don’t think we can simply ignore this for very much longer. Buildings that aren’t heated and aren’t maintained quickly reach a point where they can’t be saved.”
Some original historic buildings still survive on the island, but they’ve been extensively modified and updated, reducing their historical value.
Last year, the buildings on McNeil were placed on the Washington Trust’s annual Most Endangered Properties list, a political boost for those pushing to save them.
“We should have people living there so we can patrol and protect it,” Pierce County Councilman Tim Farrell said at the public announcement of the list. “We should have game wardens living in those buildings to make sure that the architectural and natural and cultural facilities on McNeil are preserved.”
Farrell didn’t suggest where the money might come from to house game wardens on the island. Fish and Wildlife says they’re not needed.
“People are what create the need and demand for staffing,” Schirato said.
Ideas for the buildings in the prison compound itself have ranged from bulldozing them to turning them into a museum, a brewery, a center for eco-tourism or an Alcatraz-style tourist attraction.
LEAVE IT ALONE
Some conservationists argue that the best use of the island might be simply to leave it alone.
With 13 miles of undeveloped shoreline and a largely intact forest system inland, they say McNeil is one of the last remnants of Puget Sound that still functions as it did before European colonization.
Complete environmental systems that include forests, fish, birds and beaches have been displaced almost everywhere else on Puget Sound, with the exception of military reservations and a few state parks.
“It really is a jewel,” said Eric Erler, executive director of the Capital Land Trust. “When you consider the changes that have taken place elsewhere, to have 13 miles of intact shoreline on McNeil Island alone, that’s an extremely rare situation.”
“We tend to be very practical and put things in an economically sensible perspective,” Erler said. “There’s been a lot of work by a lot of people and an investment of a considerable amount of money in restoring the health of Puget Sound. Let’s not undermine those efforts by not realizing their importance.”
“In the Capital Land Trust’s entire existence, we’ve conserved a total of 14 miles of Puget Sound habitat,” Erler said. “Here, you have 13 miles all in one place.
“From our perspective, the highest use is protection of the marine environment.”