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King County takes legal action to clear illegal use of East Lake Sammamish trail corridor

Photo of a newly-paved trail with homes to the right.
The North Segment of the E Lake Sammamish Trail was completed in 2015.
Map of the trail with the final section highlighted.
The County is preparing to construct the final section of the trail.

Last week, King County took action to reclaim public land in one of the wealthiest areas in the state: Sammamish. The County fought and won a very difficult legal battle to determine that, yes, the public does own the entire rail corridor along the east side of Lake Sammamish. And as it prepared to construct the final section of the East Lake Sammamish Trail, the County is trying to get lakeside homeowners to clear any structures or personal property from County land.

This is a persistent problem across Seattle and King County, especially near very valuable shorelines and parks. Sometimes, adjacent homeowners try to reserve public land for their own private use, and it’s often hard for the public to know when their land is being illegally seized. There may even be times when homeowners thought that public land belonged to them, and are dismayed to learn the truth.

But it’s hard for me to imagine fighting to keep public land for myself. Then, after losing a long and difficult court battle, to go to the Seattle Times and try to pretend that letters from the County telling me to move my stuff off public land within 9 months were “heavy handed.” The county is giving them until the end of September, which is frankly far too generous. This land is not just theirs, it belongs to all of us. How selfish can they be?

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When people who have nowhere else to live set up a tent on public land, Seattle policy gives them 72 hours of warning time to remove their belongings before bringing in crews to throw everything they own in the garbage. Often, the city doesn’t even give that much time. These sweeps are ineffective and cruel. But isn’t it strange that people with million-dollar homes to live in get 9 months to move their decorative landscaping or whatever, but people who have no homes get 72 hours (at best) to move their whole lives? The disparity in how people are treated in our county based solely on how much money they have is galling.

My willingness to have sympathy for Sammamish property owners who have to move their things off public land ended when a group of them tried to blow up “rails to trails” nationally by challenging it at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court decided not to hear their appeal, luckily. But wow. Rail-trails have done so many wonderful things for so many communities big and small across our nation. To attempt to undercut the entire concept just so you can keep your damn cabana on King County land, that’s downright evil.

The County also proactively filed legal action against eight parties regarding shoreline access that should belong to the public but currently has private docks and other structures on it. This is some of the most valuable land in the county.

I’m very glad King County is taking this action on behalf of all of us. Some of these homeowners need to be put in their place. They own homes worth millions in many cases, and they still feel like they deserve to have private use of the public’s land, too. Nope.

When the East Lake Sammamish Trail is finally complete it’s going to be great. It’s not just about connecting Redmond to Issaquah, it’s also about providing everyone access to a very beautiful part of our county. Most of construction on the final section is scheduled for 2021, so we shouldn’t have to wait too much longer to experience it. I mean, people have been wanting to build this trail for a half century, and the county acquired the rail right-of-way in 1998, so this is a really long time coming.

More details on the legal actions from King County:

As it prepares for construction in 2021 on the last undeveloped portion of the East Lake Sammamish Trail, King County is notifying trailside property owners this week to remove personal property from the construction zone of the publicly-owned trail corridor by the end of September 2020.

The early notice provides property owners alongside this 3.6-mile portion of the trail with ample time to make arrangements for removing structures, landscaping, and other encroachments.

Also this week, by taking legal action against eight property owners within the trail corridor, including six lake dock owners, the county is asking the federal court to affirm the public’s ownership rights to the shoreland portions of the railroad easement that the county purchased in 1998.

“We are taking steps now to make sure we can open up the long-awaited final segment of this regional public trail as soon as possible,” said Christie True, Director of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. “We have utmost confidence in the public’s ownership of this property, but rather than await more legal challenges that serve only to delay the project, we are proactively seeking final affirmation in federal court.”

Some trailside property owners along this portion of the interim East Lake Sammamish Trail have enjoyed exclusive use of publicly-owned property for years, and in some cases decades, by building unpermitted landscaping, fencing, parking areas and stairs – even private sport courts and boat docks. These private unpermitted uses are illegal.

In 2016, a federal judge ruled that King County possesses all property rights in the trail corridor to build, operate, and maintain a trail.  This ruling was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018. In 2017, as part of the trail permitting process, property owners with encroachments into the public trail corridor were informed that they were on public property without permission.

The public’s ownership of the corridor has withstood multiple legal challenges over the years, however the ownership question came up again when a homeowner challenged King County’s ownership of shorelands through a state land use appeal. The county is seeking reaffirmation of public shorelands ownership so these questions do not stall trail construction.

As for encroachments in the construction zone, any structures remaining after the September deadline will be removed by King County or a contractor at owner expense. King County Parks will work with the approximately 150 adjacent property owners to ensure their private property is removed from public land.

King County purchased the former Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad corridor in 1998 for the purpose of building a regional trail to connect the growing cities of Issaquah, Sammamish, and Redmond. The county completed an interim soft surface trail in 2006 and has been working on building a paved trail with additional amenities since then.

The final segment of interim East Lake Sammamish Trail to be developed from an interim soft-surface trail to a paved master planned trail stretches from Southeast 33rd Street to Inglewood Hill Road.

This portion of the trail will be closed for construction beginning spring 2021 until completion, which is expected in 2023 – closing the last remaining gap in the 44-mile-long “Locks to Lakes Corridor” of paved regional trails. When completed, residents will be able to travel from Ballard to the Cascade foothills all in one continuous, non-road, paved path.

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19 responses to “King County takes legal action to clear illegal use of East Lake Sammamish trail corridor”

  1. Kevin in Ballard

    Re: closing the last remaining gap in the 44-mile-long “Locks to Lakes Corridor” of paved regional trails. When completed, residents will be able to travel from Ballard to the Cascade foothills all in one continuous, non-road, paved path.

    Oh, that it were so…..hello Missing Link!

    1. Well, technically the west end of the completed Burke-Gilman is in Ballard, even if it’s not at the “locks”…

    2. Ott Toomet

      Where exactly are “Cascade foothills”? An obvious piece is missing at 520/Marymoor park (but not hard to get around), another one is connection from Preston trail to Snoqualmie Falls (no good alternative route). The former is in works related to link afaik but I have never heard about plans to connect the Snoqualmie falls…

      1. Andy B

        Not sure what you mean about a missing piece at Marymoor. The Sammamish River Trail is connected to the East Lake Sammamish Trail via the Marymoor Connector Trail.

      2. Owen P

        Preston-Fall City is the most dangerous missing link in the region and it’s crazy that nothing has been done about it.

  2. Skylar

    And somehow despite this delay, it’s still probably going to be done before the BGT Missing Link! I’ll be looking forward to riding on it when it is paved, though even with packed gravel it’s still smoother than large portions of the BGT in Seattle.

  3. Art in Kenmore

    I am an avid cyclist and can’t wait for this section to be paved and open. However, I hope the trail planners and bicycle enthusiasts remember that this is a rail corridor. Someday we will need a series of N/S rapid transit (light rail) on the East Side. That includes both the East Lake Sammamish trail and the East Side BNSF rail corridor. My guess is that we will need it in less than 50 years.

    Any bike trail should be designed with that future use in mind. There is room for both rail and bike trail in the 100 ft wide corridor. It would be unconscionable to design a routing that will make obvious future use much more expensive and politically difficult.

    1. William C.

      I agree we’ll need more transit-only right-of-way on the eastside, but I don’t think the East Lake Sammamish trail is in the right place for it. Most trips to or from Issaquah are from or to Seattle, Bellevue, or Overlake, not downtown Redmond; most trips on the east side of Lake Sammamish are headed up to the plateau not continuing along the lakeshore.

      If King County can easily design the bike trail to make rail easier, I’d say sure why not, but I don’t think it’s worth spending substantial time or money on such a remote possibility.

      1. Art in Kenmore

        You may be right. But Issaquah, Hobart, Carnation, Fall City are all growing fast. There is no county money to rebuild the connecting roads.

        I have lived in the Seattle area long enough to remember the old trolley system – and how we disparately need that infrastructure today. I hate to see any existing rail removed or the right-of-way destroyed.

      2. Hobart, Carnation, and Fall City have little to no bus service. Start there before talking about trolleys on exclusive right of way.

      3. asdf2

        Transit-wise, there are better ways to get from Issaquah to Redmond, which pass through more along the way than a tiny number of rich homes. For example, the combination of the Issaquah->Bellevue->Kirkland line Sound Transit is already planning with the Bellevue->Redmond line Sound Transit is already building. I don’t envision the need for a rail line east of Lake Sammamish in the foreseeable future.

        Even today’s bus service through Sammamish doesn’t parallel the trail because the lake limits the walkshed. Instead, the bus goes up and down the hill, passing by many more homes along the way. Any future transit corridor through Sammamish would most likely follow the bus route, not where an old rail line happened to go that was built 100 years ago.

        Recreational bike corridors, on the other hand, don’t need density every mile or two to be successful, but they do need to be flat. So, the East Lake Sammamish Trail pathway is perfect for bikes, not so good for transit.

      4. Art in Kenmore

        65 years ago, when I first moved here, there were 500,000 people living in Seattle and 250,000 people living in King County not in Seattle. Bellevue was a blueberry farm. By 1972 the tallest building in Bellevue was 5 stories (Puget Power building).

        One only needs to look at the county’s growth pattern to see that three things are true:

        1. The county population is growing at an enormous rate. Seattle is no longer the center of the universe (sorry Freemont).

        2. There is no plan. There are huge housing developements being built all around the Eastside within the “Urban Growth Boundary” without any regard for transit, sewers, water supply, electrical supply, stormwater runnoff, etc. No one is looking at regional issues. Sound Transit, in its current form is playing catch-up and will be for the next 100 years or more. As long as the King County seat is in Seattle, that is where the focus will be.

        3. Even planned communities, like Novelty Hill don’t work. People just do not live where they work. Take a drive down Avondale Rd. into Redmond at 7:00 AM any weekday. Enjoy the long wait in line.

        And there is no funding structure to build new connecting roads between these new, expanding communities. The fact that there is no existing bus service now is not an indicator of future growth. The growth is happening now as fast as the bulldozers can plow down the trees.

        All I am urging is that we do not destroy infrastructure. Someday the cars and roads will reach maximum capacity, yet we will still have to get to work. Let’s not close our options for the future. We have done that once and it has been a disaster.

    2. ballardite

      My thoughts exactly. Why they decided to put in bikelanes first instead of transit first – is beyond me. Bike lane is great and if we could have both on the corridor even better! But transit should be first!

      1. asdf2

        Building a trail costs a fraction of what building a transit line costs. You only need the width equivalent of one track, not two. You don’t need to build stations. You don’t need to buy trains or pay drivers to run them. You don’t need a maintenance facility. Etc.

        And, there’s the inescapable fact that, even as the region grows, the walkshed of any transit line along the lake would be permanently limited by the lake on one side and tye hills on the other. If, someday in the next 100 years, Puget Sound decides Sammamish is worthy of light rail, it will go up the hill to the actual town center – like the 269 bus does – not follow the lake shore, like the trail does.

        And, then there’s the fact that Sound Transit is actually planning light rail between Issaquah and Redmond. And it’s not going along the eastern shore of the lake.

        To say that we should just leave the old rail line unused for the 100+ years, just in case, when we’re all dead, somebody decides to run a train down it is pointless. Converting the corridor to a trail is relatively cheap, and gets use here and now, whether it’s ready for transit or not.

  4. Bob

    Can someone give some examples of properties in violation? I’m looking on satellite photos and not seeing anything. (I don’t have a horse in this race)

    1. JS

      I don’t either, but am guessing in areas like this they want everything cleared to the right and left of existing trail area:


      1. markinthedark

        Use the parcel viewer Robert provided in satellite view and look for parcel 0624069013. This is the type of abuse they are trying to take back. All the docks and stuff being used by the homes to the east of the ROW. It starts about 1/3 of the way up the lake.

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