For decades, a small public space along the Burke-Gilman Trail just north of the Seattle city limit has been hidden behind a private fence. But no more.
It took a remarkable amount of work to open this small space. Volunteers on a county advisory committee learned about the illegal fence and other private structures a decade ago when King County was preparing for its major 2011 remake of the trail from the Seattle border to Log Boom Park in Kenmore. Those volunteers — including Stuart Strand, who alerted me to the project and sent the photos — urged the county to take action to reclaim the space, resulting in a court battle that ultimately went in King County’s favor.
The space between the trail and Lake Washington just south of NE 151st Street became public property in the 1974 when the county acquired rights to the old railroad right of way from Burlington Northern. But it has been closed off from public access since 1979 when nearby property owners constructed a fence with a locked gate preventing public access to the space between the trail and the lake. They also built a shed and some stairs and maintained a lawn as though it were theirs.
But it wasn’t theirs. It belonged to all of us, as King County argued in court (counter-claim PDF):
“Plaintiffs have erected a fence across King County’s property, which blocks King County’s access to a portion of its property and prevents public enjoyment of a portion of that property.”
Lake Forest Park Cove LLC, the plaintiffs in the court case, went with an, um, let’s call it “interesting” argument for why the court should give them the property (complaint PDF). They didn’t dispute that the property was part of the abandoned railroad acquired by the county. Instead, they argued that because it has been held, maintained and operated as private property since 1979 without the county telling them to stop, they should be considered “fee owners” of the property. In other words, they spent money building illegal structures on public property, so therefore should be considered to be something like co-owners or lease holders of the property.
Luckily, the court was having none of it. In 2015, King County Superior Court dismissed all of Cove’s arguments and sided with King County (judgment PDF). Still, it took another half decade before the fence and structures were finally removed.
Despite how large Lake Washington is, remarkably little shoreline is open to public access. So it is important that cities and King County protect what little public shoreline we have. If you are biking along the trail and see a new view out to the lake, stop and take a little break. This has been your view all along, and it took a lot of work to bring it back into public hands.
Here’s a note about the project from Strand:
Since the mid 1970s a section of the Burke Gilman Trail right-of-way property owned by King County has been fenced off from the public in an egregious encroachment by adjacent landowners. I learned of this situation while serving on the advisory committee for the 2000’s renovation of the county’s portion of the BGT. The county worked in court for several years to remove the fence and reclaim its property, and succeeded several years ago. Since then it’s been a long slough but last week the encroaching fence was finally removed by the county Parks department (nice job) and the view opened up for the trail users to enjoy.
Praise to the King County administrators who worked tenaciously to bring this outcome to fruition: Frank Overton and Shazaad Jarrahian.
This little minipark is located on the BGT just south of 151st St NE.