EVERETT — The giant gantry cranes are a gentle hue of mossy jade, a tint neutral enough to blend seamlessly with the forested slope of Rucker Hill.

The shade of green is so close to blue on the color wheel that the two are “analogous,” according to Lee Eiseman, a Bainbridge Island interior design consultant who has been called an international color guru. The Port of Everett recently solicited Eiseman’s input in a last-ditch bid to end two decades of disputes with a prominent local family that owns some $3 million in property on a hillside facing the port’s South Terminal.

But expert testimony wasn’t enough to satisfy the Bargreens.

The cranes weren’t painted Sherwin-Williams “Smoke Blue,” as the port promised in 2017.

This fall, the Port of Everett paid the Bargreens $590,000 over the subtle color distinction in a settlement port officials hope will mark the final chapter of the protracted legal fight. The family has perpetuated the saga since the early 2000s, insisting their enviable saltwater view should be preserved — even when the Bargreens’ exacting personal preferences went against the goals of the port.

“It’s hard for me to believe that this whole issue is over the color of the cranes, blue versus green,” Commissioner Tom Stiger said at a recent public meeting. “The Bargreen family, I think generally, with the exception of this issue, has been supportive of the port.”

Howard J. “Howie” Bargreen, 76, and his wife Melinda Bargreen, 73, declined The Daily Herald’s requests for comment through their Freeland-based attorney, Tom Ehrlichman.

The Bargreens are known locally as heirs of a 120-year-old coffee company that bears their name. For nearly a century, they’ve owned about 20 acres on what their lawyer has deemed “one of the most scenic bluffs in all of Snohomish County, perched above Puget Sound with stunning views of the sea and the Olympic Mountains on the horizon.”

Scores of homeowners in the Port Gardner neighborhood can see the cranes, but no other vantage point has been as fiercely guarded as the Bargreens’.

Since 2017, the port has spent more than $1 million defending efforts to modernize the South Terminal against challenges brought by the family. And because those disputes are tied to capital improvements, those costs can be paid with property tax revenue.

Officials estimate the Bargreens’ various objections to port projects have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more since 2000. The exact amount is unknown, though, because the port’s attorneys have not always provided itemized invoices, and some of the spending records are so old the port is no longer legally required to keep them, port CEO Lisa Lefeber said.

The most recent round of unexpected costs came as the port braced for an $8 million revenue drop in 2020-21, fueled by an economic downturn and turbulence in the aerospace industry.

To make up for pandemic-induced losses, port leaders have slashed operational expenses and curtailed spending on capital projects. They’ve agreed to keep vacant 10 positions, or roughly 10% of the port’s workforce, for another year at least, Lefeber said.

(Herald staff)

(Herald staff)

The port’s 2021 budget is about $61 million, with tax revenue accounting for roughly 8.5%.

The hefty settlement was a result of “constant pressure from the Bargreen family,” said port Commissioner Glen Bachman, who voted to approve the deal with the family in August. “I’m disappointed that we had to use those resources in this way.”

But further delays to the South Terminal project, he said, “would be devastating to all of Snohomish County.”

Legal grounds

Port officials have long heralded the $57 million South Terminal revamp as the missing puzzle piece to a modern seaport that can handle bigger ships carrying bigger cargo, including components for Boeing’s 777X and other wide-body jet parts headed for the Paine Field assembly plant. The aerospace giant is the port’s largest customer.

Key to the project are the 214-foot, 2.4-million-pound cranes, each with a crown of orange hatching to satisfy the requirements of federal aviation authorities.

Starting in late December, the pair of metal behemoths are scheduled to begin heavy lifting.

The new payout comes three years after the port wrote Howie and Melinda Bargreen a $330,000 check in response to a lawsuit that threatened the project in 2017. In the first settlement, the port agreed to paint the cranes “the equivalent of the Sherwin-Williams ‘Smoke Blue’ color,” the shade of a neighboring set of waterfront cranes that have been in use since 2005. Officials also promised to limit light, noise and other impacts of the South Terminal update.

“The reason this even came about is because there was a timely and substantial legal challenge on our South Terminal project at a critical point,” Lefeber said of the most recent settlement. “We could not afford a year-and-a-half-plus delay in getting that terminal online.”

The family’s 2017 lawsuit challenged a permit issued for railroad upgrades needed to support the cargo terminal. The Bargreens’ attorney alleged an expansion of the rail corridor between the hillside and the port would put public health and safety at risk by sidelining train cars carrying crude oil and by generating “increased vibrations” that would endanger the “unstable hillside.”

The port “significantly and vehemently” disagreed with those claims, Lefeber said. The port doesn’t handle crude oil, though it is a routine commodity along the rail corridor. The additional 3,300 feet of track, built as part of the South Terminal modernization, now allows cargo passing through the port to be loaded onto cars without delaying trains on the main rail line, she said.

When port officials agreed to the 2017 deal, they anticipated they would get orange cranes from the Port of Seattle at little or no cost. Everett port officials procured the green cranes for $1 from Los Angeles, instead, but then had to shell out more than $5 million to barge them here.

The cranes were not repainted as promised, however, because the job proved too costly for the port to justify. At first, a contractor estimated it would require some $1 million but later revised that amount to $3.2 million.

After signing the 2017 pact, port officials learned that if paint were to cover bright stripes on the cranes, the Federal Aviation Administration would require the machinery to be adorned with lights, pulsating 24 hours a day, to alert low-flying planes.

A demonstration of those flashing lights in January 2020 drew an overwhelmingly negative response from residents with waterfront views, including some on Whidbey Island, Lefeber said.

So the cranes remain green.

Any insurance reimbursement for the $590,000 settlement with the Bargreens is “highly unlikely,” Lefeber said. The port received $25,000 to offset the first settlement from 2017. Two other property owners who were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Rob Younger and Annzolee Olsen, also got $110,000 in that settlement, meaning the port initially paid a total of $440,000.

Younger and Olsen agreed in September 2019 to drop the crane painting provision for another $100,000 from the Port of Everett.

But in two rounds of talks facilitated by a third-party professional mediator, the Bargreen family persisted in its argument that the color difference would diminish property values.

The port spent roughly $2,500 for the color expert’s testimony and $4,500 more on an appraisal trying to change the family’s mind.

Consultants with Seattle-based McKee Appraisal studied whether crane color would make a difference based on a seven-point “view rating scale,” and also by analyzing sales of luxury seaside condos in Edmonds with varying views of a commercial waterfront.

“It is our conclusion that there is no measurable market value impact to a water-view residential property as a result of having green as opposed to blue gantry cranes within the residential view plane,” the consultant determined in the 2019 appraisal.

That wasn’t proof enough for the Bargreens.

On Aug. 11, the Port of Everett approved the most recent payout in a 2-1 vote.

Commissioners Bachman and David Simpson voted in favor.

Stiger cast the lone no vote. He noted that Howie Bargeen is a personal friend.

In the wake of so many budget cuts, the commissioner added, the settlement “couldn’t come at a worse time.”

Steeped in tradition

Sam Bargreen began selling coffee to Everett customers from a horse-drawn wagon in 1898. It was the dawning chapter of the family’s local heritage, starting in business and later expanding into politics and charity.

The Bargreen’s Coffee Company’s flagship cafe is still in the heart of downtown, at 2821 Rucker Ave.

Sam Bargreen’s only son, Howard S. Bargreen, was just a child when he first caught a glimpse of the sound from Rucker Hill, according to a spiral-bound, unpublished 53-page family history that Howie Bargreen gave to Commissioner Stiger this year.

Howard S. Bargreen was initially drawn to the western part of the slope because it was a prime spot for invasive devil’s club, which he often used as a stick in “shinny,” or street hockey. With a crushed soup can as a puck, he played alongside kids who lived near his Hoyt Avenue home, now the site of a Planned Parenthood.

In the 1930s, Howard S. Bargreen and his wife, Grace, bought more than 20 acres on Rucker Hill. They moved there in 1941, when a tavern near their Lake Stevens house became too loud for Grace, according to the family history.

The Bargreens’ first home on the hilltop was built by the Everett High School shop class for about $15,000, the document says.

The Weyerhaeuser pulp mill and lumber mill, where the South Terminal is now, churned along the waterfront below them for decades until it sputtered to a stop in the early 1980s.

The Bargreens started Crown Distributing Co., a distributor of beer and other beverages.

Howard S. Bargreen served more than 20 years in the Legislature, part of that time as a state senator.

Grace Bargreen was instrumental in establishing the Assistance League in Everett and the Everett Opera Guild.

Their daughter, Sharon Bargreen Blunt, also left a legacy of volunteerism. Sharon Crest, where the family’s Rucker Hill homes stand, is named for her.

The Bargreens were also among the founding families of the Greater Everett Community Foundation, now the Community Foundation of Snohomish County.

Howard S. Bargreen died in 1987. Grace Bargreen died in 2015. She was 106 years old.

Howie and Melinda Bargreen have two children. Owen Bargreen is an Everett psychologist, sommelier and wine blogger. Maren Bargreen Mullinowns an art gallery in downtown Park City, Utah, near the nation’s largest ski resort.

All four were to receive money from the settlement.

The bitter end

Friction between the Bargreens and the Port of Everett has dragged on in spite of the port’s repeated efforts to be good neighbors.

A 2001 agreement guaranteed a third rail line would not be constructed under the California Street overpass, in accordance with wishes the family spelled out in a lawsuit. Port officials also agreed to meet regularly with the Bargreens and participate in a community group the family intended to form to discuss long-term port projects.

A few years later, Howie Bargreen again raised objections when the port sought permits for a pair of 40-ton gantry cranes on the South Terminal wharf.

Industrial “blight” would make the city a less desirable place to live and work, Howie Bargreen wrote in a 2003 letter to a port planner. He cited Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, where property values soared as high-tech businesses and upscale apartments moved into what was once a district known for fisheries and wooden shingles.

“Adding trains and cranes activity in Everett tells the rest of the world that we are willing to despoil our waterfront for special interest groups (in this case, the Boeing Company),” he wrote.

The port made another deal with him in 2004. Officials agreed to limit operations to daytime hours, to lower the crane booms when they were not in use and to paint two orange cranes a less-jarring color picked by the Port Gardner Neighborhood Group.

But due to permitting hangups and unexpected costs, the cranes were instead installed on the port’s Pacific Terminal, north of the original plans and more visible to residents lower on the bluff, said Lefeber, the port’s CEO. Neighbors raised objections about bright coloring, so the port painted the towers a softer hue of the community’s choosing before they went into service in 2005, Lefeber said.

Smoke Blue was the winner.

In the new settlement, neither side admitted fault. The family agreed to withdraw all pending records requests from the port. The settlement bars both sides from raising past claims. The port and the Bargreens also pledged to not sue one another in the future.

“If it had gone to a jury trial, any reasonable jury would have, I’m sure, questioned the issue of the color of the cranes, too. But we apparently chose to settle,” said Stiger, the port commissioner. “I hope it’s the end.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; [email protected] Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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