King County files lawsuit to finish East Lake Sammamish Trail

Homeowners have until September to remove buildings and other property from the right of way.

About 150 homeowners living along the East Lake Sammamish Trail were served with letters this week telling them to remove their installations, landscaping and docks from the trail’s right of way.

The notices were sent to homeowners along a 3.6 mile segment of the trail which the county hopes to begin paving the final portion of the 11-mile trail this fall. The trail links Issaquah to Redmond and connects to regional trails that run all the way to Ballard.

Homeowners have until September to remove landscaping, buildings and other property from the right of way, or the county could charge them to remove it.

“Back in 2017 we informed these folks as part of our permit process that their items were in the limits of construction and they would need to be removed,” said Sujata Goel, government relations administrator for King County Parks. “But now that we’re ready to start construction, we waned to make it very clear, and provide a clear timeline and provide a lot of time.”

While Goel said the county was willing to work with homeowners, it also will try to avoid using taxpayer dollars to remove significant or expensive property.

The county purchased the trail — formerly a BNSF rail corridor that dates back to the 1880s — in 1998. The trail and easement ranges from between 50 to 200 feet wide along its length. Over the years the lawsuit says property owners have built “docks, boat lifts, cabanas, decks, walkways, hardscaping, fences and other structures [which] constitutes trespass.” The county said sports courts also have been built in some cases.

Adjacent property owners and the county have been fighting for years. A 2018 hearings examiner ruling found that many of the improvements were made before King County owned the property, when railroads owned the property. The companies likely didn’t care if owners encroached on their easement so long as it didn’t interfere with the rail line. In previous coverage, some adjacent property owners were worried the trail would cut into their property.

Further, a lawsuit was filed against eight specific homeowners in Western Washington’s Federal District Court on Jan. 14. Six of the homeowners had built docks on the lake. The county is asking the court to affirm the public’s ownership of the property, including portions of the shoreline in the original easement.

The lawsuit was filed against people who had built along the lake. It argues part of the county’s purchase of the trail included a shoreline easement. Lake Sammamish used to be lower when the easement was granted in the 1880s, and since then the lake’s level has been raised. That means a portion of the county’s easement is underwater, and underneath the docks.

The county finished an interim trail surfacing project in 2006 and has been working on building a paved trail along the corridor since then. The remaining 3.6 mile stretch will be closed for construction in 2021 and is expected to be opened two years later.

Many of the properties in the area are worth millions of dollars, and the lawsuit alleges property values increased after freight train services ceased on the corridor. The county is asking the courts to require homeowners to vacate the corridor, pay for its restoration and pay back rent for unauthorized uses.

In recent years, a federal judge ruled the county owns all property rights in the trail corridor to be used as a trail. This was subsequently upheld in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 under the federal Trails Act.

Representatives for the Sammamish Homeowners Association could not be reached for immediate comment.

The finished and paved trail will help connect Eastside cities to each other, and to Sound Transit’s Light Rail stations, Goel said.

“We’re at the final 3.6-mile segment of completing this vision, and we really do feel these public lands should be for public use,” Goel said. “…We really believe that this 20-plus year vision is an important vision.”

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