Local Support for Green Arson

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Elaine Thompson / AP

Firefighters spray a flaming house at the scene of where four multimillion-dollar homes burned on March 3, 2008, in Woodinville, Washington. A radical environmental group is suspected of having started the fires.

The torching of five large, newly constructed homes on the rural fringe of the Seattle metropolitan area, and an apparent claim of responsibility for the arsons by the eco-terrorism group ELF, has drawn predictable concern from local and federal authorities — and also a notable lack of sympathy for the fate of the homes themselves.

The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force is busy investigating the Monday fires and on Thursday finished its search for evidence at the crime scene, near Maltby, about 25 miles northeast of Seattle. FBI Special Agent Frederick Gutt told TIME he considers the arsons "potential domestic terrorism" and said this was the fourth such ELF-linked burning of new homes in Washington State since 2004. Other ELF-linked acts in recent years have targeted housing developments in California and New York, and an SUV dealership in Oregon.

The damage in Monday's arson has been estimated at $7 million. The burned Washington housing development, called Quinn's Crossing, was celebrated last summer as part of a "Street of Dreams" promotion that drew tens of thousands of visitors. But it is not exactly a cherished local landmark. Despite its claims of green construction, area activists fought it, fearful that it would upset the delicate environmental balance in an area that contains an important aquifer and streams favored by Chinook salmon.

Maxine Tuerk, who is part of a local group that opposes rural "cluster houses" like the ones torched on Monday, said that if all such developments were to disappear from Snohomish County, the fast-growing area that contains the crime scene, "it wouldn't bother me one bit — that's exactly what we're working for." Tuerk, a 75-year-old retired real estate broker who lives on a quiet 20-acre parcel in a wooded valley outside the city of Snohomish, added that she does not condone the tactic of burning down new homes to protect the environment. "It's stupid for anyone to go out and take the law into their own hands and commit a crime in order to accomplish making a change in laws or ordinances when you can work through a process," she said. Still, she was not alone in the absence of grief she felt at the loss of Quinn's Crossing.

A sheet left at the crime scene, the key piece of public evidence pointing toward ELF involvement, read: "Built Green? Nope black! McMansions in RCDs r not green. ELF." [RCD stands for Rural Cluster Developments] "The message on that sheet resonates," said a former resident of the Maltby area who now works at a large out-of-state architecture firm and does not want to be identified. "The arsons were terrible and stupid, but it's hard not to be cynical of claims of sustainability by suburban developers."

On Washington blogs and internet discussion boards, others expressed similar feelings, questioning whether a home on the edge of forestland that encompasses 5,000 square feet, as one of the destroyed Quinn's Crossing homes did, should ever have been labeled green in the first place. "The Street of Dreams is a bloated pox on the housing industry," wrote one commenter on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's web site. "Why are developers still ripping up nature to build 'Green' McMansions?" (Contacted by the Seattle Times, the designer of the 5,000-square-foot home conceded it was never meant to be "state of the art" in terms of environmental friendliness.)

Still others, in a sign of the depth of distrust for developers of such suburban projects, suggested the fires were deliberately set in an effort to get some financial return, via an insurance payment, on the homes — none of which had sold since their opening last summer. Gutt, the FBI special agent, said authorities were not ruling out any possible motives, noting that the banner and other unspecified evidence recovered at the crime scene had been sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, for analysis. "I don't know where the facts will take the case," he said. "We're confident that it will be solved but we're also realistic that it's going to take some time."

As a point of comparison, Gutt offered another ELF-linked crime, an arson at the University of Washington Horticultural Center in 2001. On Thursday, in Tacoma, about 40 miles south of Seattle, a 32-year-old woman from California, Briana Waters, was found guilty in that incident — about seven yeas after it occurred. She faces at least 10 years in prison.

Gutt also acknowledged that the reaction to this possible act of domestic terrorism is a bit unusual as far as terrorism cases go. "A lot of people in the Northwest, on the West Coast, and in the U.S. and in the world today are environmentalists, have concerns about the earth and Mother Nature, myself included," Gutt says. "A lot of people up here may be more sympathetic to the objective. It's a social objective many people can share." But, he adds: "I don't think it makes the methods any more acceptable. There are ways to effect real change without resorting to crimes of violence."