King County received a key environmental permit this week to build the East Lake Sammamish Trail, meaning construction on the embattled...

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King County received a key environmental permit this week to build the East Lake Sammamish Trail, meaning construction on the embattled project could start this year, officials said.

The recent approval clears a major hurdle, said Brooke Bascom, spokeswoman for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

“Things are moving forward,” Bascom said. “As long as we keep meeting these milestones, we’ll be on track to opening a trail this year.”

The county is awaiting two more permits — a shoreline permit and a grading permit — from the Department of Development and Environmental Services before it can officially break ground, Bascom said.

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The county has been trying to build the project since it bought the property along an abandoned railbed in 1998. The trail would be a key link creating an urban-trail network from the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle around Lake Washington to Issaquah and Interstate 90.

But the battle to construct an 11-mile trail that would run from Redmond to Issaquah has been mired in politics and lawsuits.

Legally, things have been looking up for the county this year. On Tuesday, it received its long-awaited Public Agency Utility Exception from John Galt, a Sammamish hearing examiner. That will allow the trail to cross sensitive wetland areas. The city of Sammamish originally issued the permit in 2002, but a group of homeowners, the East Lake Sammamish Community Association, opposed it, saying alternative routes would have less impact on sensitive areas.

In January, a federal judge ruled that the former railbed where the county wants to build is appropriate for trail use.

Property owners filed an appeal to the federal decision last month with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said Ray Spencer, a community-association board member.

Spencer said he had not seen the hearing examiner’s decision from this week. But, he said, the homeowners will review their options “and then we will decide what our course of action will be.”

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com