Polluted property causes headaches for neighbors, city of Tumwater

An aerial view of the Franks property at 2921 54th Ave. SW in Tumwater. Piles of wood and garbage are seen.
An aerial view of the Franks property at 2921 54th Ave. SW in Tumwater. Piles of wood and garbage are seen. Staff file, 2016

A garbage-infested property on the outskirts of Tumwater continues to cause problems for the city and nearby residents a year after foreclosure.

Known as the Franks property, the 4.16-acre site is about a half mile east of the Bonneville power station at 2921 54th Ave. SW. It has been on the Department of Ecology’s Hazardous Sites List since 2013. The soil and groundwater have long been contaminated by petroleum, lead and other metals.

Bank of America took ownership of the property from Ken “Bud” Franks after foreclosure in May 2016. But the condemned property is still occupied by Franks and others who live in trailers and motor homes next to mounds of trash. The Olympian has been unable to reach Franks for comment.

Since 1998, Franks has received multiple citations for code violations related to illegal dumping and pollution of a wetland, according to documents.

In May 2016, Franks told The Olympian that he lacked the money to clean up the property.

“I want it cleaned up, too. They don’t have to tell me,” he said.

The property is less than 600 feet from the nearest drinking water well that serves dozens of homes in the vicinity, documents show.

James Lunsford, who owns a property on 54th Avenue Southwest, recently addressed the Tumwater City Council about his frustrations with the Franks site — specifically contamination to his drinking water.

Lunsford said he is frustrated with the city’s lack of action to protect the health of residents. He said his children have discovered used hypodermic needles along the road near the property.

“I cannot for the life of me understand why we’re refusing to take action,” Lunsford told the council last month.

Mayor Pete Kmet said private property rights are complicated and that the Franks property has been in the city’s sights for a long time.

“We can’t just go out there and take over the property,” Kmet told Lunsford. “We have to go through a process to do that.”

City officials have not been able to confirm that the area’s underground wells and drinking water have become polluted. The city confirmed that customers who use Tumwater’s municipal drinking water supply are not affected.

“The city does not have any data or sampling to verify pollution of drinking or groundwater sources for that area,” said Heidi Behrends Cerniway, assistant city administrator, referring to the Franks property. “Contamination is suspected, given the history and suspected activities on the property.”

Mike Matlock, community development director for Tumwater, said Franks signed a “voluntary correction agreement” to clean up the property. That cleanup never happened, so the city fined Franks $4,000 and turned him over to collections when the fine wasn’t paid, Matlock said.

In the meantime, Matlock said the city is working with Thurston County health officials and the Department of Ecology on a response, but eviction of the property’s occupants is ultimately the responsibility of Bank of America.

The foreclosure means the entire process — from violation notices to investigations — must start again with the new owner, he said. Tumwater police are frequently called to the site to address stolen property and other criminal activity.

“Something like the Franks property is a problem on many levels,” said Matlock, who oversees the city’s code enforcement. “Our goal at this point is to at least get it to look better and go from there.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869, @andyhobbs