Age Discrimination Lawsuit Leaves Wounds In Seniors-Only Retirement Haven

May 29, 2014

When you approach your golden years, who doesn't look forward to peace and quiet surrounded by a supportive community? That desire led some retirees to relocate to a tiny town deep in the woods of southwest Washington. Ryderwood bills itself as the nation's first seniors-only retirement village. But the tranquility that lured people there went missing during a long and divisive lawsuit. The case questioned whether this 400 or so strong community could be so exclusive. It came replete with allegations of shunning, death threats, uncollected garbage and the tossing of a headless rabbit. Correspondent Tom Banse reports on the relief that has followed a settlement.

Ryderwood's place in history is noted as you enter the town, pop. 400.
Credit 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 into a retirement haven. Now Ryderwood could serve as a social science Petri dish to study bitterness, division and healing.

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

Bea McKim: "It's pretty much back to good like this town should be." Cheryl Pearce: "It's happily over. We went through five years of hell."

What Pearce refers to is 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.

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

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. 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.

Leach: "All I wanted was truth. But it did go longer than we thought. A couple of times we thought about dropping out. 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.

Leach: "We were shunned. 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.

Leach: "We have some people that are very hostile and bitter and carrying on. 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."

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

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.

Knight: "Our attorneys pointed out - and even the judge pointed out - that a settlement would be the best method all the way around. 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 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 during a short telephone interview.

Copyright 2014 Northwest Public Radio