Rod Dawson and 10 of his co-workers will lose their jobs at the U-Neek RV dealership in Ridgefield, Wash., this month.
Not because of anything the business itself did, but because of work done on U-Neek’s 17611 N.E. Union Road property years before the RV dealership moved in — work that Clark County officials are cracking down on nine years later, Vancouver’s The Columbian reported.
The business is caught in the midst of a bureaucratic mess, according to dealership owner Terry Sinkler. He is holding a liquidation sale and plans to close the business, off Interstate 5 and Northeast 179th Street, rather than risk an uncertain fate at the hands of Clark County. His landlord, Union Road Investments LLC, did not get permits to build a five-bay servicing building in 2001. Now, that unpermitted building is on the county’s radar and Union Road is ignoring Sinker’s plea for help, he said.
Sinkler’s business uses the structure the same way it was used by the site’s previous operator, Poulsbo RV — to service and inspect travel trailers and motorhomes.
“Before we opened, we had to go to the county and apply for a permit,” he said. “We were told there were no outstanding issues with the property.”
However, a document issued by the county noted the missing building permit at the time U-Neek moved in.
Sinkler expects to close the Ridgefield facility by Sept. 17 and transfer its remaining units to the company’s home base in Kelso.
“It will be the second job I’ve lost in two years,” said Dawson, 54, the dealership’s service manager.
Sinkler did not know about the county code violations until March, about 10 months after he signed a five-year lease for the site — and nine years after the unauthorized construction took place. He also found out then that his landlord, an arm of Kent-based Poulsbo RV, had added site parking without complying with county rules for treating the stormwater that would discharge into nearby Whipple Creek.
“The county estimated that it could be well over $100,000 to bring everything into compliance,” Sinkler said. “My landlord said, ‘We’re not going to spend any money on it.’”
So Sinkler terminated his five-year lease on the site that, ironically, his company had sold to Poulsbo RV for $1.7 million in 2000. Before that, U-Neek operated at the Ridgefield tract from 1979 to 1996, when it moved to Kelso.
Sinkler questioned how Poulsbo RV’s Ridgefield dealership escaped being cited for code violations for nine years. “How do you allow a commercial building to be used for years without a permit or ever being inspected for structural stability and safety?”
It did not seem that out of the ordinary to Marty Snell, director of Clark County’s Community Development Department.
Snell said the county trusts businesses that appear to be going through the steps to permit a site.
“So long as they’ve applied and they are in the process of securing the permit, we put the case on hold. It may take a few years before they get their act together,” Snell said.
In the case of conspicuous code violations, such as the Ridgefield RV building, “we need to pursue compliance or shut it down if there is imminent danger,” he said.
Poulsbo’s owners did not respond to phone calls and e-mail messages seeking comment.
The Kent-based company operates RV dealerships there and in Everett, Auburn, Mount Vernon and Chehalis.
Snell also questioned whether there were additional issues forcing U-Neek RV to shutter the site.
“It is hard for me to believe that the only reason this business is shutting its doors is because of the county’s outstanding code-enforcement case,” Snell said.
Sinkler said the unanticipated $100,000 expense would, indeed, be enough to force U-Neek to shut down.
Poulsbo closed its Ridgefield dealership and its flagship Poulsbo location in April 2009. At the time, the site’s general manager, Todd Timmermann, blamed slumping RV sales. He had said the Ridgefield dealership employed 65 people and grossed $35 million in annual sales at its peak in 2007.
Falling stock portfolios, tumbling home values and job losses in 2008 and 2009 contributed to Poulsbo RV’s closure.
“RV sales are based on discretionary money,” Timmermann had said.
Sinkler said U-Neek RV’s Ridgefield sales had also suffered in 2009. However, he said sales improved in 2010, increasing by about 50% this year over the same period in 2009.
“Since Memorial Day, that store has had between 20 and 30 sales a month,” Sinkler said.
He said the Ridgefield site was on track to generate $4 million in sales this year.
Sellers and manufacturers of recreational vehicles alike have suffered greatly since 2008, a year that launched bankruptcy filings for several RV makers and dealers.
Since then, several manufacturers have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Now Poulsbo appears to have new plans for the property. Sinkler said the company told him that it plans to sell the nine-acre tract, a prime piece of real estate off 179th Street, which Battle Ground I-5 commuters pass daily. “For Sale” signs have not been posted at the site and at least two commercial real estate agents said the site is not being marketed for sale.
Sinkler is also frustrated with the county.
“They (county officials) won’t give me a straight answer,” he said. “They say, ‘We could give you a temporary occupancy permit, or we could walk in and tell you we’re shutting you down tomorrow.’”
The county does not have a quarrel with U-Neek, but it also must enforce permit rules, Snell said.
“This is not U-Neek’s problem,” he said. “This is Poulsbo’s problem. U-Neek RV is feeling pinched between Poulsbo and the county.”
U-Neek employee Dawson, a Vancouver resident, believes the county should do more to protect his job and the jobs of his co-workers.
“I would think the county would do anything they could to keep a business going,” he said.
Public records suggest that Poulsbo started out with good intentions. Before it built the 4,000-square-foot service structure, the company attended preliminary site plan meetings to discuss its plans with the county.
But Poulsbo RV constructed the building, moved in and started operating without the county’s approval.
For nine years, that decision was overlooked.
Sinkler said three of his 14 Ridgefield workers will transfer to U-Neek’s home base in Kelso. The other 11 will lose their jobs.