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King County fighting to maintain safe E Lake Sammamish Trail design

The North Segment of the E Lake Sammamish Trail was completed recently.
The North Segment of the E Lake Sammamish Trail was completed recently. Imagine how a tree in the trail path would create a dangerous situation.

King County Parks is in a legal battle with the City of Sammamish over plans to complete the E Lake Sammamish Trail between Redmond and Issaquah. And due to this battle, construction has been delayed on Segment A near Issaquah. Crews were supposed to begin work this fall.

Sammamish issued a construction permit in July, but with 19 conditions. And if you read through them, it becomes clear very quickly that a lot of lawyers and money got involved in this process (median household income in Sammamish is about $144,000 compared to the county average of $68,000). If you want a taste, try reading the permit language (PDF). The 19 conditions are at the end under “Conclusions.” More documents are available on the City of Sammamish project website and from King County (PDF).

The most clear conflict point comes down to trees. In order to meet modern trail safety standards for width and sight lines, some “significant” trees (trees taller than 4.5 feet) will need to be removed. These safety standards exist to prevent people from colliding head-on, which the only real danger on a separated trail like this.

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Of 250 such trees in the project area, 221 will be saved and 29 will be removed (less than 12 percent of the total). King County plans to plant trees and other vegetation all along the trail to replace any that is removed for construction.

But the Sammamish-issued permit requires King County to squeeze the trail “as necessary” to save nearly every tree.

A particularly complicated section of trail shows which trees can be saved (S) and which will be removed (X). Others will need to be monitored (PH)(M). See the full document here.
A particularly complicated section of trail shows which trees can be saved (S) and which will be removed (X). Others will need to be monitored (PH)(M). See the full document here.

Not only would squeezing the tree in places create “a lesser trail” — as Christie True, Director of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, put it in a press release — but it could also result in injuries.

“Simply put, many of the 19 conditions in the city’s permit preclude us from building a safe trail with good sightlines and enough width to meet regional trail standards,” True said in the statement (read the full release below). As you can see in the map above, some trees are simply in the middle of the planned trail.

The fact that King County is appealing these conditions is significant because our region does not need any more sub-standard facilities for biking and walking. When making this kind of investment in an important transportation and recreation corridor like this, we have to do it right. A trail like this is a long-term investment in mobility and quality of life, and it’s a lot harder to go back and find the funding to fix mistakes later.

And in case you are skeptical that the county’s plan really is high-quality, you can head over to Lake Sammamish right now and take the Pepsi Challenge. The North Segment of the trail was completed and opened a few months ago and transitions abruptly to the old gravel trail. And as we reported, it’s already getting a lot of use.

In short, it’s probably the best-designed trail in the whole region. It’s the product of a whole lot of lessons learned, both in King County and around the nation. The County’s designers know what they’re doing when they make new trails, and they know we simply can’t ignore safety standards.

From a King County mailer
From a King County mailer

Remember, this trail will be a direct link between bike routes in Issaquah (including the I-90 Trail) and Redmond with huge potential for increases in bike traffic in coming decades. We’re not designing the trail to meet today’s existing users, we’re designing it for an even busier future. If we squeeze it down today, we will regret it later.

I hate the idea of tearing down mature trees. I’m sure the County doesn’t like it either (this is a King County Parks project, after all). If you read through the documents (here’s the tree evaluation PDF), you can see that planners really did evaluate every tree and saved all they could without compromising the project. In the end, they say they need to cut down 12 percent of the significant trees along the trail and replace them with new trees.

But the greater good of having a safe, comfortable and high-capacity human-powered transportation facility is a strong trade-off. It’s also a linear park that improves recreation and lake access for everyone.

It’s been a long, hard slog to get to this point. Lots of heated emotions from people who really want to realize this vision and from some lakeside homeowners who really want to stop it. The existing plan is the product of a ton of community input and inch-by-inch evaluation. It’s sad to see it head to the legal system this close to the finish line.

I hope the City of Sammamish can see the greater good in what the trail will do for the community, and I hope the legal process does not drag out forever as it has for so many other trail projects in the region.

Here’s the King County press release:

Citing safety concerns, King County Parks has appealed a shoreline substantial development permit from the City of Sammamish for redevelopment of a portion of the East Lake Sammamish Trail (ELST) within the city limits.

About one year ago, King County applied for a city shoreline permit to redevelop this 1.3-mile stretch of the ELST. Since that time, Sammamish and its residents have requested numerous design and plan modifications that King County has incorporated into the current trail redevelopment plan for the stretch of trail, known as “South Sammamish Segment A,” which runs from Southeast 43rd Way to Southeast 33rd Street.

On July 7, Sammamish issued a shoreline substantial development permit for the South Sammamish Segment A, but included numerous conditions in the permit, which King County is appealing.

“Simply put, many of the 19 conditions in the city’s permit preclude us from building a safe trail with good sightlines and enough width to meet regional trail standards,” said Christie True, director of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. “The public has had access to recently completed portions of the trail, and it has been proven to be very popular. These conditions would result in a lesser trail for the residents of Sammamish and King County.”

“In the spirit of working cooperatively with Sammamish to redevelop this important public amenity, King County has agreed to numerous additional requirements and made other modifications to the trail design,” True said. “We look forward to the redevelopment project moving forward in a timely manner – for the benefit of Sammamish, and for all King County residents.”

According to Sammamish’s development code, King County Parks is required to build a trail to national guidelines as outlined by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

However, several of the conditions included in Sammamish’s shoreline substantial development permit for South Sammamish Segment A would result in a trail that did not meet those required AASHTO guidelines, including suitable width, sufficient sightlines, soft-surface shoulders, and other important safety factors.

The ELST follows a historic railroad route along the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish within the cities of Redmond, Sammamish and Issaquah. Part of the “Locks to Lakes Corridor,” the trail follows an off-road corridor along the lake and through lakeside communities.

King County purchased the 11-mile-long East Lake Sammamish rail banked corridor in 1998. An interim soft-surface trail was completed and opened to the public in 2006, and redevelopment into a master planned regional trail has been ongoing since then.

All of the construction, including any tree removal, regrading, paving, landscaping and other work, has occurred within the King County right of way. No work has occurred on private property.

Once the ELST is fully developed, it will be part of a 44-mile-long regional trail corridor from Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood to Issaquah. More information is available at www.kingcounty.gov/eastlakesammamishtrail.

And in case you aren’t already convinced that the trail is really nice (as are project staff), King County put together this video:

East Lake Sammamish Trail reopens from King County DNRP on Vimeo.

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28 responses to “King County fighting to maintain safe E Lake Sammamish Trail design”

  1. Donna S

    Hi Tom,
    What kind of “squeeze” are we talking about to save the trees? Inches, feet? Does it cut into the paved width? As you know, I’ve very pro bike/ pedestrian, but I’m also pro tree.
    Donna S

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      The language of the permit says three feet or “as necessary.”

  2. Jim Laudolff

    I feel like the many of the residents along the north end of the trail got a great deal. Lots of new retaining walls were built. Trail crossings were repaved as well.

    I was skeptical of the need for the wide trail and thought I would stick to the road for my daily commute. However, sightlines are exceptional. The surface is exceptional. And I have had no encounters, much less close calls, with residents. After a month and half or so of use, I can say this trail is a huge asset to our bike network and to the community.

    I hope the county is successful in working with the residents to preserve the design integrity of the trail.

  3. Ints

    First off, it is good to see more municipalities requiring tree surveys and preservation plans.
    The plans (in particular the sheet Tom posted) show the trail moving through a particularly constrained right of way with trees on one side and a stream on the other. Depending on the tree species many of these are likely short-lived species (relatively speaking +or- 60 years) that are found along stream courses like alder, cottonwood, willow, maple etc.
    While my first instinct was to recommend accepting a trail that doesn’t meet regional standards (which simply means riders might need to slow down a bit in this stretch much like car drivers do in a similar situation along Highway 1 through the redwoods) these are trees that a licensed arborist has recommended removing. Reasons for that in addition to construction could include age, health, limb structure so it looks to me this is likely to be more about residents not wanting this facility passing through their ‘hood than it is about trees.

    1. Josh

      The city’s conditions require the County to build a trail that does not meet *minimum* design standards.

      We’re not talking about pie-in-the-sky ideal conditions, they’re requiring the County to knowingly build a hazardous facility that can’t be remediated simply by “slowing down a little” unless you mean “get off and walk.” Shave three feet off an AASHTO-standard trail, and it’s not wide enough for two bikes to pass head-on. (It’s not ADA compliant, either.)

    2. asdf2

      I think you have to consider the nature of each tree individually, in terms of the health of the tree, the impact on the trail, and the long-term maintenance impact of the root system as the tree grows.

      Squeezing a trail to preserve a 4 1/2-foot tall tree doesn’t make sense – a new tree a few feet down could grow to that height in just a few years. On the other hand, if you’re talking about something more unique, say a 60-foot tall tree, then, yes – narrowing the trail for a few feet to preserve the tree is probably the right call.

      Hopefully the arborists know what they’re doing in making these decisions.

      1. Matthew

        While a 60 ft tree may be majestic, if it is an alder or maple, it may be near the end of its life (as Ints pointed out), and may pose a risk of falling limbs. The risk may be more than just a substandard trail.

  4. Seems silly that the city agonizes over these trees for safety sake but are okay with the fact that streets are a disaster for cyclists and pedestrians. Today there was a shipping container dropped squarely in the bike line on a blind curve on Avalon for example. Not saying we shouldn’t build safe trails but I guess I have never felt much anxiety encountering such obstacles on a shared path. On the roads, with cars, it is flat out dangerous but nobody seems to care.

    1. Joel S

      They probably even removed a tree or two to build that road back in the day.

  5. Southeasterner

    I’ll agree with NIMBY’s for once.

    Save the trees and convert a lane on E Lake Samm parkway to a bike/ped facility. :-)

  6. How many trees were cut down to build each house in Sammammish?

  7. bill

    The tree fetishests around here are mind-boggling. This isn’t Arizona. Trees grow here like weeds. And in many cases they ought to be treated like weeds — eradicated. All the bumps on the Burke-Gilman? Tree roots. Great, the trail has been ground down recently. In some places leaving exposed roots. How long until the roots heave up the pavement again? Instead of cutting down the weeds and eliminating the problem, we’ll be spending money to repave the trail soon, again. Are trees planted in the verge alongside roads? No! Because they will eventually destroy the roads, trees are set back from roads. Bike trails should have the same treatment. None of the trees along the East Sammamish Trail are special — that is all second or third growth.

    The north part of the trail is indeed very nice. I’m fine with the gravel part, too. But I understand the need for better sightlines. Even though the gravel keeps bike speeds down, the sightlines are marginal. Pave the trail as is and it will become quite dangerous. Maybe the long term objective of those behind the “conditions” is to shut the trail down after it is paved because it will be “too dangerous.”

    I think many lakefront homeowners don’t like the trail because it exposes their nouveau riche poor taste in architecture to public view.

  8. William Wilcock

    The PNW is full of trees so unless these are old growth trees or remarkable specimens, it is ridiculous to modify the trail. We do not do that for road or home construction.

  9. Is this what happened down on the Duwamish Trail between the 1st Ave S Bridge and Holden? Another situation like that would be ridiculous.

  10. don

    this trail will bring more people to our houses and yards. with that comes more crime, undesirables, and problems. i hope the county is ready to compensate each homeowner for the loss of property value that will happen with this.

    Keep all the trees. makes the cyclist slow down that way. If they get hurt it is their fault for going faster than conditions allow.


    1. bill

      Absolutely right don! The entire length of the Burke-Gilman from Fremont to Bothell and beyond has deteriorated into a decayed crime-ridden ghetto timid wealthy people dare not set foot in.

      Oh wait. That was the Doom Foretold when the trail was proposed in the 1970s. The Burke has been in place for 40 years. In fact real estate along the trail is desirable. Lakefront property is eye-wateringly expensive. Rather than being a freeway for thugs the Burke is used by all manner of people — cyclists, dog walkers, runners, walkers, commuters and recreationalists.

      I would think people who are smart enough to amass the wealth it takes to own lakefront property would also have the wits to examine what has actually happened in nearby communities. Properties along the Burke are probably safer for all the honest eyes passing by 24/7.

      I repeat, the lakefront homeowners along the East Sammamish Trail are simply embarrassed to have their ostentatious poor taste on public view.

    2. Southeasterner

      So for clarification you are thinking that undesirable people and criminals will only travel on paved surfaces and wouldn’t ever think of using a hard surface trail as it currently is? The criminals out your way must be riding some nice carbon fiber race frames.

      The big problem with your argument is it’s the wealthier citizens who ride those expensive bikes who are pushing for the trail to be paved. Criminals could likely care less, in fact with more people using the paved trail I’m sure they would prefer it stays as it is today.

    3. Josh

      Decades of experience with CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) actually demonstrate quite clearly that public trails provide additional eyes on the ground that deter undesirable activities when property owners are off at work.

      Criminals are already quite willing to skulk through the woods to get to the back of your house unseen. But they’re much less likely to do so if they’re in plain view of upstanding citizens with cell phones.

      Want privacy? Accept the crime that comes with it.

      Want security? Invite the law-abiding public to keep an eye on your property at a safe and respectful distance.

    4. Adam

      So Don, let me get this straight: it’d be the cyclist’s fault if he/she got hurt for going too fast which is implying he/she is not due any compensation from the county for not adequately maintaining a trail to established standards. However, if the county improves a trail (in their right of way) to standards they owe compensation to homeowners for the negative impacts?

  11. Joe

    I ride the East Lake Samm trail every day for work. Here is my recommendation: don’t repave the rest of the trail, keep it as is, spend the money elsewhere instead (like the Burke Gilman or something), keep the trees.

    I have come to enjoy the gravel part of the East Lake Samm Trail. It is hard packed and there is less traffic in that section. I have 26 x 1.25’s and, while the non-paved part slows me down a little, i roll along just fine, in relative quiet and I like it that way.

    If a cyclist simply must go fast and smooth they can ride the huge bike lanes on the East Lake Sammamish road that parallels the East Lake Samm trail a mere 50 feet away, the same wide shoulders (now designated bike lanes) that cyclists have been riding for decades.

    Save money, save the trees, be kind to the homeowners, let Joe continue to ride in peace. :)

    1. Committed roadies will ride anywhere, sure. But what about the less committed? I grew up near a crushed-limestone trail, which I loved, and would ride and run for miles on, but I know other people that lived near it that were discouraged from riding because they struggled with the inconsistency of the surface. They weren’t going to ride far on the streets, bike lanes or not, unless they were able to build up a practice of cycling on the trail. And it had significant disadvantages even for me: dust and dirt the drivetrain in dry weather, sloppy surface and mud all over my clothes in wet weather.

      Ubiquitous bike access is important — more important than the feelings of a small number of squeaky-wheel property owners and more important than a few dozen trees (surely as many were cleared to build the roundabout at 43rd, for instance).

    2. Josh

      How’s the gravel for child strollers, wheelchairs, and walkers?

      Should urban/suburban trails only accommodate able-bodied adults? Or should we be extra careful to provide local facilities for the less-mobile?

      Athletic adults can always head to the hills for gravel or dirt.

      1. Of course, access to more rustic trails (for walking and prudent running, at least) without having to drive way out of town is a true feature of Seattle. There is a balance, and I actually think a lot of city parks around here (especially in incorporated Seattle) strike a pretty good balance. Corridors like the ELST and CKC, though, present unique opportunities to connect the transportation cycling network, and by their easy grade, provide very accessible recreation. These opportunities aren’t that common around here and we should never let them go by.

      2. Joe

        Making it accessible for all is a good point. As much as I like biking that section as-is (the unpaved hardpack section), I would support paving it if it meant that walkers and wheel chairs would use it. Lots of people with baby strollers already use that section, btw.

  12. Joe

    I would like the project to be managed a little tighter this time. It took them about 3 months longer than they predicted to complete the last portion. (it was due early Spring but not opened until mid-Summer)

    Also, they should do the work in segments this time instead of blocking off the entire section. If they block off short segments then it minimizes the amount you have to ride/walk/stroller on the road (in the winter). Is Agile construction a thing?

  13. Shelly Bowman

    Our public land. Our state of the art public trail and views of our public lake.

    Private encroachment move back your greedy plight for the Gem Trail belongs to all, not to your family only, but to all families.

  14. NoSpin

    Don’t believe for one minute that this is about ‘saving trees’ – these people have allowed trees along East Lake Sammamish Parkway to be completely removed simply because homeowners want better views of the lake, and there are several new housing developments going in where acres of land have been clear-cut.

    This is about one thing: local homeowners pushing to gum up the works

  15. Jan

    Good article. Just to clarify what a significant tree is, per Sammamish Municipal Code it is a coniferous tree 8″ in diameter or a deciduous tree 12″ in diameter at breast height.

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