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Lawsuit Leaves Wounds In Seniors-Only Retirement Haven

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network

Ryderwood started as a timber company town. When the loggers pulled out in the early 1950s, an enterprising developer converted the entire six-block by six-block village in southwest Washington into a retirement haven. Now Ryderwood could serve as a social science Petri dish to study bitterness, division and healing.

Ryderwood bills itself as the nation's first seniors-only retirement village. But the tranquility that lured people to the tiny town deep in the woods went missing during a long and divisive lawsuit.

The case questioned whether this 400-person strong community could be so exclusive. It came replete with allegations of shunning, death threats, uncollected garbage and the tossing of a headless rabbit.

"Five years of hell"

At the town's volunteer-run café, peals of laughter echo around a table of silver-haired regulars gathered for morning coffee. Patrons say the happy mood is a positive sign.

"It's pretty much back to good like this town should be," Bea McKim said.

"It's happily over," Cheryl Pearce added. "We went through five years of hell."

What Pearce was referring to was a recently settled federal lawsuit. It challenged the essence of Ryderwood -- that only retirees aged 55 or older can buy homes there. McKim and Pearce wanted to maintain the status quo.

Resident Chris Wiegner agrees and still doesn't understand how this turned into a costly lawsuit.

"Why? Why? Why move to a nice, quiet beautiful place and then want to change it?" asked Wiegner.

"Life is too short for this"

But 54 townspeople did want to change it and signed on to the age-discrimination lawsuit. It was around the height of the housing crisis and some of the plaintiffs wanted to be able to sell their Ryderwood homes to whomever they wanted.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Former plaintiff Gloria Leach finds life much improved now that her neighbors again exchange friendly greetings while she gardens in her yard.

For others, like Gloria Leach and her husband, it was more about standing up to perceived shortcomings by the homeowners association, which enforces the 55 and older bylaw.

"All I wanted was truth," Leach said. "But it did go longer than we thought. A couple of times we thought about dropping out. [It was] very expensive."

And divisive. The lawsuit pitted neighbor against neighbor. Mountains of court documents detail grandmas and grandpas behaving badly. There's alleged harassment, retaliation, intimidation, tire slashing, nasty emails and hurled insults. The challengers claim they were made unwelcome at church and the community café.

"We were shunned," Leach said. "I could understand that they were very disappointed in the actions that we were taking."

The litigation lasted so long that some of those who challenged the age restriction died before it was resolved. Leach is just glad it is finally over.

"We have some people that are very hostile and bitter and carrying on," she said. "I keep reminding them that life is too short for this. My favorite saying is, 'Let go, let God.'"

On the other side, resident Chris Wiegner says she did her best to behave honorably. In her assessment, "it's going to take a long time to get over this."

"It was a dumb thing, but people get into these fixed ideas," Wiegner said. "Here you are, you're spending the last years of your life and health, the last years of your money on what? Stupidity."

"Nobody is 100 percent happy"

The homeowners group, the Ryderwood Improvement and Service Association, has a relatively new leader who is trying to play the role of peacemaker. Denny Knight says the settlement reached this spring preserves the town's 55-and-older bylaw. Ryderwood's insurance company paid off some of the debts accumulated during the litigation on both sides.

"Our attorneys pointed out -- and even the judge pointed out -- that a settlement would be the best method all the way around," Knight said. "Nobody is 100 percent happy, but the winner is the town. We can put this behind us."

The more than five years of arguing changed no policies to speak of, observed Knight. The little village at the end of the highway can go on proclaiming itself as the nation's original seniors-only retirement community.

An unusually large number of Ryderwood houses are now for sale. The majority of those listings belong to people who initiated the unsuccessful lawsuit.

One of the first litigants to move away was Janice Bigley. She and her husband withdrew from the group of town critics and resettled in Tumwater, Washington. Bigley partly attributes the move to the ill will among neighbors. "When we withdrew, we were ostracized," she explained.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.