Legal battle looms for Snoqualmie Valley Trail access

Riders Jennifer LeBlanc of Monroe, left, and Susan Young of Duvall encounter a locked gate on privately owned timberland near Carnation. Timberland sales have limited backcountry options for Lower Valley equestrians, but the King County Council is now exploring eminent domain as a way to reopen a closed access point. - Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Riders Jennifer LeBlanc of Monroe, left, and Susan Young of Duvall encounter a locked gate on privately owned timberland near Carnation. Timberland sales have limited backcountry options for Lower Valley equestrians, but the King County Council is now exploring eminent domain as a way to reopen a closed access point.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

There was a time when backcountry riders like Fall City resident Patty Bernard had a free hand and an open trail.

Bernard has trotted her horse down trails in the Weyerhaeuser and Hancock forests since the mid-1970s.

“I know them like the back of my hand,” Bernard said.

In the old days, she and her friends rode past logging crews, but their presence wasn’t a big deal.

“They just let us ride,” she said. “You just took off, and there was never anything mentioned.”

Riding the backcountry of the Lower Snoqualmie Valley has been getting harder for equestrians like Bernard. Riders have looked on in frustration as sales of timberlands in the Lower Valley shuttered trailheads that had been freely accessed for years.

In the last six months, gates have been shut and “No Trespassing” signs posted at popular sites at Griffin Creek near Carnation and the Rutherford Slough at Fall City.

The closures came as a shock to many trail users.

“We’ve all been a bit spoiled,” Carnation rider Lynn Cassell said. “We thought this would stay this way forever.”

Eminent domain

Things came to a head last fall with the sale of 65 acres of Weyerhaeuser property on Fall City’s Rutherford Slough. The property included a path used for years to connect a large regional trailhead at Fall City Park with the Snoqualmie Valley Trail via 39th Place.

King County attempted to partner with the Cascade Land Conservancy to buy the property from Weyerhaeser, but were unsuccessful in their bid. Fall City-based Rutherford Slough, LLC, bought the property for $299,000 in October.

Not long after, the new property owner closed the site to public access. Negotiations between the county and the owner proceeded to re-open the trail, but no agreement could be reached. Last week, the King County Council’s Environment and Transportation Committee voted to use eminent domain arguments to force a sale of 3.2 acres for a trail easement.

County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert told the Valley Record that the decision to force a sale was used as a last resort.

“We wouldn’t have got here if we hadn’t tried every other potential,” Lambert added. “In the long run, this will be a permanent solution.”

According to Lambert, the trail has always been a public thoroughfare. The county has a 1911 document showing access rights through the property, she said. The 99-year-old easement means the county can claim a discount on the purchase price through eminent domain.

“We will make a very fair offer, based on the appraisal, which is what the law requires,” Lambert said.

The King County Council will vote on an ordinance allowing eminent domain purchase at Rutherford Slough at 11 a.m. Monday, May 17, at the King County Courthouse.

Protecting property

The 39th Place trail’s new owners dispute the county’s claim. Brian Wall, one of the five joint buyers of the property, points to county news releases and road permit applications as evidence that it never secured public access. He questions what the eminent domain decision means for other property owners.

“The county is trying to pull eminent domain from convenience, not because they have the legal right or ownership of the property,” Wall said. “They built a parking lot on (Highway) 203 without securing trail access.”

Driving his truck up the one-lane gravel road, Wall pointed to several illegal mountain bike and horse trails that wind through his property.

He recently spotted a group of quad riders who somehow managed to get their vehicles through his gate. Riders make new trails all the time, and Wall has found the remains of what appeared to be small fires.

Last week, he planned to put up fencing permanently blocking the trail. Wall said his concern is to protect his investment.

“If someone causes a fire up here on a hot summer, who is going to reimburse us for our timber?” he said.

Wall and his fellow owners had suggested a deal that would have put a paved road on the site, while also allowing him to divide his property, zoned for one residence per 10 acres, into three or more parcels, in exchange for access.

“We asked them to pave this road all the way to the top,” Wall said. “People could drive up to the exit. That would solve all these issues.”

He claimed that the county put a stop to negotiation for a deal, pursuing eminent domain instead.

“We came up with a resolution to make this a permanent agreement to both parties, to make it a win-win for all,” Wall said. “They sent us a letter saying they were going to file for eminent domain. We were told that they have thousands of phone calls a day as to why this is closed.”

Griffin Creek

King County is not pursuing eminent domain at nearby Griffin Creek, where a company called Carnation Properties, LLC, bought hundreds of acres of former Hancock forest and closed public access.

King County Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Brown said he would love to see more access to trails in the region, but can’t require it in Griffin Creek’s case.

In 2004, King County bought development rights and a 90,000-acre easement at Griffin Creek from the Hancock Timber Resource Group, ensuring that the land remain a working forest. The easement precludes subdivision of the land, while allowing one dwelling per 80 acres on some parts of the property. The easement did not prevent Hancock from selling the land, but any buyer is bound by its terms.

Last August, Carnation Properties bought 640 acres of forest from Hancock Life Insurance Company for $2.2 million.

Property rights

A property manager for the Carnation Properties site told the Valley Record that there have been no discussions with the county regarding public access.

In an e-mail, a representative of WICT Management stated that public access was part of Hancock’s company policy, but not part of the easement.

“Unfortunately, today landowners can be sued and held liable for anything that occurs on their property,” the manager stated. “Too often, courts side with the negligent actions of plaintiffs and award monetary compensation. Similarly, state legislators fail to enact laws that specifically protect landowners and explicitly hold them harmless from accidents that may occur on their property. On a property of this type, unknown hazards may exist that we cannot be aware of. In short, it is simply bad policy to allow unfettered access.”

Sharing the trail

If eminent domain is approved, riders like Cassell and Bernard will have expanded options and better access from Fall City Park. But things still aren’t as easy as they used to be.

“We’re a diminishing community,” Bernard said. “When you have to hassle someone over a trail ride, you don’t want to deal with it.”

Rider Connie Patmore-Farr urges cyclists, joggers, walkers and rider to work together in their search for access.

“We all have to learn how to share,” she said.

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