After nearly a decade of conflict and courtroom battles between King County and lakefront homeowners, one of the nation's most contentious...
After nearly a decade of conflict and courtroom battles between King County and lakefront homeowners, one of the nation’s most contentious trails is getting built and may open as soon as January.
King County announced yesterday that it has received all nine necessary permits for the East Lake Sammamish Trail and that work on completing the scenic 11-mile route, connecting Redmond to Issaquah, could begin in July. The county opened two small sections of the trail — a total of 3 ½ miles — through Redmond and Issaquah last year.
The trail, which the county has been trying to build since the former rail corridor was abandoned in 1996, provides a critical link in an otherwise nearly continuous trail system that stretches 40 miles from Ballard to Issaquah and then along Interstate 90 as far as Idaho.
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“We’re going to get it built,” said King County Executive Ron Sims, who has pushed for the trail since he took office in 1997. “There are times when you have to hold firm so the public can win, and 10 years from now the people will not remember the battle, they’ll just be enjoying the beauty of the trail.”
Nestled among tall firs and boasting some of the Eastside’s most serene water and mountain views, the rail corridor has also been the site of one of the county’s ugliest public-private land battles.
Controversy started when the county decided to buy the property through a federal program known as Rails to Trails, which allows railroads to sell, lease or donate the rights of way on routes they no longer operate to private organizations or local governments for interim use as trails.
Over eight years, more than 20 lawsuits spun out of the $2.9 million sale of the corridor to the county in 1998. Some homeowners, whose high-value property sits near or adjacent to Lake Sammamish, opposed the path of the trail, arguing it would invade their privacy and could attract crime.
In many spots the route, an extension of Seattle’s Burke-Gilman and the Eastside’s Sammamish River trails, cuts between lakefront homes and the lake itself and crosses some residents’ lawns and driveways.
A Sammamish homeowners group called the East Lake Sammamish Community Association, along with some private citizens, has spent millions of dollars fighting the project on many different fronts, keeping it tied up in court.
Since 1997, the county has spent roughly $1 million a year on purchasing, defending and developing the trail.
1971: The King County Urban Trails Plan identifies the stretch of rail bed between Redmond and Issaquah as a critical future trail link for the region.
1976: The federal Rails to Trails Act is passed. Expanded in 1983, it allows railroads to sell, lease or donate the rights of way on routes to private organizations or local governments for use as trails. Routes can be converted back to mass-transportation use, but it rarely happens.
1990: The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the law, leading to rails-to-trails projects across the country.
1996: The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad quits using the section of line along East Lake Sammamish, and King County looks into acquiring it.
1998: King County buys the property. In the first of several delayed starts, county officials announce an interim gravel trail will open within a year.
2000: Opponents file suit in King County Superior Court, accusing the county of illegally laying the gravel. A judge rules the county work was warranted.
2001: The Metropolitan King County Council agrees to build a temporary trail on the railbed while the county studies options for the alignment of a permanent trail. Homeowners begin building unauthorized fences, digging illegal ditches and spreading flowerbeds onto the trail in protest.
2002: The city of Sammamish issues the county a critical environmental permit, but homeowners oppose it, saying alternative routes would have less impact on sensitive areas.
2003: In a victory for homeowners, Sammamish Hearing Examiner John Galt decides Sammamish did not consider all practical alternative routes when it approved an environmental permit. A Snohomish County judge orders Galt to reconsider. Opponents file a federal lawsuit over the trail.
2004: King County opens two small sections of the trail — a total of 3 ½ miles — through Redmond and Issaquah. The middle chunk, through Sammamish, remains closed.
2005: The Sammamish hearing examiner allows the trail to cross sensitive wetland areas. In a separate case, a federal judge rules that the former railbed is appropriate for trail use.
Monday: King County obtains its final permit, for clearing and grading, and learns that opponents haven’t appealed a shoreline permit by the deadline.
“It’s definitely one of the most litigious trails in the country,” said Peter Goldman, a Seattle attorney who has helped defend the trail and sits on the board of the national Rails to Trails Conservancy, which advocates for and helps purchase trails. “The amount of money that’s been thrown at litigation in this case is unprecedented.”
Over the years, disagreement over the proposed route through Sammamish grew so strong that intruders on the rail corridor, which has remained closed to the public during most of the past decade, have been threatened by homeowners. County officials used to travel to the railbed only with a sheriff’s escort.
This spring, however, opponents pulled out of the fight after losing a lawsuit to the county in U.S. District Court.
“I think it is really over,” said Hank Waggoner, president of the East Lake Sammamish Community Association. “But we still have some of the same worries and concerns, absolutely.”
Sammamish Mayor Don Gerend said yesterday that the city will continue to work with lakefront residents to “make sure the impacts of the county trail are properly mitigated.”
Sims expects funding for construction, estimated to cost $1.6 million, will be approved tomorrow by the Puget Sound Regional Council. That will free up $900,000 in previously allocated federal transportation funds. The rest will be paid for with real-estate excise taxes set aside for parks and recreation.
Supporters were thrilled at the news that the necessary permits have been approved and that opponents are not planning to appeal.
“Oh my gosh, it’s great news,” said Bente Pasko, a Sammamish resident. “I’ll be there on opening day for sure, with a bottle of champagne in my backpack. I plan to hike the whole thing.”
Pasko said she thinks that once the trail is built, opponents will warm to the idea.
When it opens, trekkers can start on an existing trail near Shilshole Bay and connect to the Burke-Gilman. The route then stretches past the University of Washington, curls north around Lake Washington and connects with the Sammamish River Trail in Kenmore, passing parks in Bothell and a winery in Woodinville before extending south past Redmond.
The new link will take people along Lake Sammamish toward the quaint storefronts of downtown Issaquah and lead the most ambitious hikers into Snoqualmie Pass.
The initial trail will be made of gravel. The county plans to construct a paved trail after a master plan is adopted by the Metropolitan King County Council. The plan is expected to be submitted to the council early next year.
Rails-to-trails projects have been opposed in nearly every state since federal legislation approved such conversions more than 20 years ago.
Still, the movement has turned more than 12,000 miles of former railway into trails since the mid-1980s, with 16,000 more miles in the works.
In Washington, more than 60 trails totaling over 700 miles are completed on former railway, and dozens more are planned. The Burke-Gilman and Sammamish River trails are two of the most popular routes in the country, attracting as many as 1 million users a year.
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org