(New York Times) Five luxury homes in a subdivision marketed as â€œbuilt greenâ€ near here were destroyed or severely damaged by fire early Monday, and evidence at the scene suggested the fires might have been started by radical environmentalists who viewed the homes as violating rather than complementing the wooded wetlands in which they were built.
“Built green?” read letters spray-painted onto a bedsheet found hanging on a fence at the site, about 25 miles northeast of Seattle. Nope Black!
“McMansions + R.C.D.s r not green,” said the sign, apparently referring to rural cluster developments, which advocates say help prevent sprawl by limiting development density in rural areas. The section of the development, called Quinn’s Crossing, has fewer than a dozen lots on a cul-de-sac just off Echo Lake Road, an area where modest older houses and mobile homes are more common.
The message on the sheet was signed with the letters E.L.F. the infamous initials of the Earth Liberation Front, a loosely organized group that has been linked to multiple bold acts of ecoterrorism across the Northwest and elsewhere for two decades. Banners have claimed E.L.F. responsibility for arsons at other housing developments in the region in recent years, and the fires on Monday came as jurors deliberated in a case involving an arson in 2001 at the University of Washington that was linked to E.L.F.
Fred Gutt, a special agent with the F.B.I.‘s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Seattle, said of Monday’s fires, “There’s a claim of E.L.F. responsibility and, given that, it’s being investigated as a domestic-terrorism act.”
“But the authenticity of the claims still needs to be borne out” Mr. Gutt added, noting the elusiveness of the Earth Liberation Front. “There’s no membership rolls. There’s no clubhouse. It’s more of an ideology. They’re organized only to the extent of maybe cells that get together and decide to act on their belief.”
None of the houses were occupied at the time of the fires, and no one was injured.
Neighbors first reported hearing what sounded like gunfire or explosions early Monday, and firefighting authorities on the scene told reporters that the houses appeared to have had multiple fires set.
The fires stunned the builders and real estate agents promoting the development, who had cast it as reflecting the “best practices” of environmentally friendly high-end home construction. They emphasized features like landscaping that requires little water, sidewalks designed to minimize runoff and reused lumber for construction.
The five houses were models built specifically for the 2007 Seattle Street of Dreams tour, their size and price deliberately scaled back, to about 4,500 square feet and around $2 million, to respond to what one builder, Grey Lundberg, said was an increased interest in more subdued and â€œgreenâ€ luxury homes.
“This is releasing more carbon into the air than they ever would have by building the houses,” Patti Smith, the listing agent for one house that burned to the ground, said of the fires. “That’s the tragic irony.”
From the start, Quinn’s Crossing met opposition from residents and groups who felt it threatened local water sources and woodlands. That tension remained after construction began. Mr. Lundberg said that late last fall two pieces of heavy construction equipment were ruined by vandalism, including having their engines destroyed. He said no message was left but he presumed it was related to opposition to the project.
On Monday, Eric Olsen, 21, who grew up in the area and still lives a few streets north, said many neighbors were still angry that the development had ruined beaver dams and backwoods trails. He said some people believed the increased paving in the area had already pushed polluted runoff into streams where salmon spawn.
“Stick it to the man!” Mr. Olsen said when told who claimed responsibility for the fires. “I’m not supportive of those tactics but there’s been far too much development.” He added, speaking of the development, “Nobody wanted it.”
Mr. Gutt, of the F.B.I., said no suspects had been named in many recent arsons claimed by E.L.F. at housing developments, but there have been prosecutions in other cases. Last year in Oregon, at least 10 people linked to E.L.F. and the Animal Liberation Front were sentenced for a number of crimes, including arson, committed from 1996 to 2001.
In Tacoma on Friday, a jury began deliberations in the case of Briana Waters, who is accused of serving as a lookout when activists set a fire at the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington in May 2001 because they mistakenly thought the center was using genetics to grow poplar trees.