A federal judge's ruling this week supporting the building of the East Lake Sammamish Trail through the city of Sammamish means construction on the beleaguered project could start...

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A federal judge’s ruling this week supporting the building of the East Lake Sammamish Trail through the city of Sammamish means construction on the beleaguered project could start as early as this year, county officials said yesterday.

“It’s very good news for our efforts to keep the East Lake Sammamish Trail project on track,” said Carolyn Duncan, spokeswoman for County Executive Ron Sims.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle ruled that the former railbed, which would connect the Sammamish River Trail to other trails along Interstate 90 near Issaquah, is appropriate for trail use.

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“The purpose of the federal Rail to Trails Act is to encourage the transition of these railbeds into recreational trails,” according to his decision.

Still, opponents say they could appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court.

“We’re disappointed with the decision,” said Mike Witek, attorney representing the East Lake Sammamish Community Association, the group of adjacent property owners who argued that the trail should follow an alternative route. “We’re considering our options.”

King County has been trying to build the trail since it purchased the property in 1998, but legal challenges kept progress at an impasse. At issue was the critical midsection of the trail in Sammamish. Homeowners protested against the 11-mile stretch running through their properties and, in some cases, along or through their front yards. They argued for consideration of another route, located partly alongside East Lake Sammamish Parkway.

Proponents of the trail contended the project doesn’t need to be moved to another route.

“This is a very important decision,” said Matt Cohen, attorney for Friends of the East Lake Sammamish Trail, the Cascade Land Conservancy and Sammamish residents Bente and Robert Pasko, who filed the lawsuit in September 2003. “The practical effect is that it’s going to significantly shorten the time required to get the trail open and get families out to be able to use it.”

Despite the court victory, it may be several months before construction could start.

The county still needs to get, from Sammamish, a shoreline permit and a Public Agency Utility Exception permit that would allow the trail to cross a wetland or other critical area.

Duncan said it’s unclear when those permits will be issued. Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com