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Retirement Haven Torn By Identity Crisis

The small town of Ryderwood in southwest Washington bills itself as the nation’s first seniors-only retirement community.

But some unhappy residents have provoked an identity crisis. They’re pursing a federal housing discrimination case to get Ryderwood to lift the age restrictions that are enforced there.  

A three judge panel of the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will listen to oral arguments Friday in Seattle.

Tom Banse reports on the turmoil in Ryderwood.

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

Ryderwood started as a timber company town deep in the wooded hills of southwest Washington.  When the loggers pulled out in the early 1950’s, an enterprising developer converted the entire community into a retirement haven.

Several prominent signs now stand at the town’s entrance. One welcomes you to “the oldest over ‘55’ village in the U.S.A.”  Another more plainly says, “You have entered a 55+ community.” 

The village is nothing fancy.  Basically a six block by six block grid of modest, tidy, affordable cottages and doublewides.

The heart of the town seems to be the cafè run by volunteers.

Retired Army sergeant Michael Lutz is serving this day.

Michael Lutz: “I’ve never met a place in the world that is like Ryderwood.  And I’ve been all over, you know.”

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Retiree Don Barnes drives a golf cart to the village cafè.

A topic of conversation among the grey-haired regulars is the upcoming court argument about the unincorporated town’s future.

Michael Lutz: “I just want them to leave us alone.  Let us be what this town has been for many, many years.”

Ryderwood’s peace and quiet has been ruffled by a group of residents some call the “dissidents.”

Grandmother Joyce Fischer is one of them.

Joyce Fischer: “Discrimination.  That’s why I got involved in this.”

She’s talking about age discrimination.  The community’s by-laws say you have to be at least fifty five years old and retired to live in Ryderwood.  Young people can visit, but are generally not allowed to stay.

Joyce Fischer: “There was a single man that was made to leave because he was underage.  And I guess, I too if my grandchildren needed a place, I would certainly want them to be able to come here.”

…to stay with her.  Others want to sell their homes and not be limited to the over 55 set. 

Federal housing law allows for seniors-only communities under certain conditions. 

Neighbor Chuck Weaver started the series of lawsuits against Ryderwood’s governing board in 2007.

Chuck Weaver: “If you’re going to be a retirement community, you’d better dot your i’s and cross your t’s because you’re discriminating.  You have a license to discriminate only if you follow the rules.”

Ryderwood resident Chuck Weaver

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

Weaver’s lawsuit claims multiple failures to follow the federal rules.  The town’s defenders claim the deficiencies have been fixed, and the challenge should therefore be declared moot.

Ryderwood retiree Mary Anne Von Ende fears the court case could destroy the essence of her town.

Mary Anne Von Ende: “I was a reserve deputy sheriff in Los Angeles for three years. I worked juvenile division out of East L.A. I don’t want to be around a lot of teenagers and the issues that go with that type of environment.”

Von Ende says she would “not want to be” in Ryderwood anymore if the current age restrictions were lifted.  She also says “it’s a real shame” to see a nasty rift tearing apart what should be a pensioner’s paradise.

Mary Anne Von Ende: “I’m not saying that all kids are bad. I know they’re not.  But I prefer to be in an environment where that is not a concern, especially as I get older.   You can’t please everyone, but we all agreed to the terms of living here.  And so I felt it was a safe bet since everybody knew what they were getting into when they came here.”

The Ryderwood case is now just one step below the U.S. Supreme Court.  The judges on the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court have asked the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to weigh in. 

A ruling on the village’s future is likely months away.  I’m Tom Banse in Ryderwood, southwest Washington.

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