When Samuel and Christine Hickman purchased their Mercer Island home six months ago, they never thought their backyard would turn into a...

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When Samuel and Christine Hickman purchased their Mercer Island home six months ago, they never thought their backyard would turn into a controversy.

It was the pathway behind their house, which borders Pioneer Park, that led city workers to their door.

The path crosses the newly marked park boundary and is one of roughly 20 incursions the city identified in a 2002 survey of the park. Known as “encroachments,” the incursions range from piles of yard debris to lawn extensions, shrub plantings, a swing and even a garden shed.

Now the city says it is getting serious about restoring boundaries and reclaiming property that over the years may have come — intentionally or accidentally — into private use by neighbors.

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In the Hickmans’ case, the previous owner never informed them that the property had an unresolved encroachment. The city says that owner had promised to remove the path that swings for 15 yards into parkland. When Lisa Belden O’Meara was notified that the debris pile in back of her house on Southeast 63rd Street was an encroachment, she didn’t think she had created the problem but was willing to clean it up. Rather than pay more than $1,500 for a landscaper to clean and plant the area, she instead worked with city arborist Paul West.

West secured volunteers from a local Boy Scout troop and EarthCorps, a nonprofit group that helps local communities with environmental restoration. “In doing the work with Lisa we’re demonstrating that there are service groups to help people restore areas,” said West.

The city’s Open Space Conservancy Trust (OSCT), a board that handles city park issues, is creating a policy to ensure that owners comply with recently marked park boundaries.

Encroachments


For more information about the Pioneer Park encroachment policy, call the Mercer Island Department of Parks and Recreation at 206-236-3545 or go to www.ci.mercer-island. wa.us/Index.asp

Under the draft policy, if an owner fails to act after notification, the city would remove the encroachment and bill the owner. A refusal to pay could result in a lien on the property.

“We feel that someone who has had use of park property for 40 years has had free benefit for a long time, but now it’s time to resolve the issues,” said Rita Moore, OSCT chair. The draft allows an encroachment to remain for up to three years, with an annual licensing fee of $340.

The policy is modeled after one in Seattle. In recent years, both Seattle and Bellevue have had high-profile encroachment cases, including Seattle tree cutting by an employee of Judge Jerome Farris that resulted in a $500,000 damage settlement, and tree pruning and cutting in Bellevue by Kendall and Janice Kunz that led to a $150,000 settlement with that city.

Anne McGill, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Issaquah, says cases there have ranged from barbecue pits to private dog runs. She says she understands why many communities are moving toward a written policy, but stresses the importance of working with individual neighbors.

“It is really beneficial to deal with people face to face,” said McGill.

If adopted by the Mercer Island City Council, the plan would likely become policy for all the city’s parks.

That has some residents upset.

At a recent public forum on the encroachment policy, some residents complained about excessive bureaucracy. Others say they have been good neighbors and stewards of the parkland for years and feel the OSCT is treating them poorly. Moore responds by stressing that now is the time for people to voice their concerns.

“It’s not that we’re out to get people,” said Moore. “We found out that we have encroachments and now we’re dealing with them.”

In addition to maintaining borders, Mercer Island is looking at its property lines in an effort to protect parks from invasive species like holly and English ivy.

Matt Ironside: 206-464-2449 or mironside@seattletimes.com