LAKE SAMMAMISH — They don’t expect much sympathy from the general public. They’re the couple with a hillside home with a gorgeous view overlooking the eastern shore of 5,000 acres of water. The sunsets are astounding.

The property of Vicki and Warren Beres is assessed by the county at $1.85 million.

Back on Jan. 14, they found a legal notice taped to their front door. King County was suing them in U.S. District Court.

That two-level dock Warren had built by himself out into the lake? The footbridge he also built with his carpentry skills in the garden below? A good chunk of that garden with the magnolias they had planted and that every spring loaded up with flowers?

All had to be removed, says the lawsuit.

The news these days is all about the coronavirus. That hasn’t made other stuff go away. If you’re involved in a lawsuit, the lawsuit is still here.

The lawsuit says the Bereses and the owners of seven other properties along the lake had taken “without permission” an abandoned railway line in front of their homes. This wasn’t their land, the county says.

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The lawsuit says “docks, boat lifts, cabanas, decks, walkways, landscaping, fences and other structures” should be “ejected and payments made for remediation and restoration of the public lands, along with the payment of back rents.”

Says Warren Beres, “They’re telling us we’re trespassers. We’re trespassers on our own property.”

Warren Beres stands on the East Lake Sammamish Trail, land from which King County  is trying to force him to remove a dock, trail, bridge and plantings. 
(Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Warren Beres stands on the East Lake Sammamish Trail, land from which King County is trying to force him to remove a dock, trail, bridge and plantings. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

The 11-mile-long East Lake Sammamish Trail joins 44 miles of the “Locks to Lakes Corridor, a trail stretching uninterrupted from the Ballard Locks to the Cascade foothills. The county describes the trails as “a multi-path for bicyclists, pedestrians, joggers, walkers and movers of all ages and abilities.”

After 23 years, it’s finally coming to an end, this epic legal battle between the county and many of the property owners. You could print out hundreds of pages of U.S. District Court, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Federal Court of Claims filings.

Along Lake Sammamish, the trail goes by some 500 property tax parcels, according to county records. It’s not clear how many of the property owners have had some kind of legal dealings with the county or the feds concerning the trail. The Sammamish Home Owners, a group of lakeshore owners, says 300 to 400 individuals contributed to its advocacy efforts.

The January lawsuit filed by the county was a preemptive strike to end this once and for all, and complete the final 3.6-mile segment of the trail along the lake.

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“ . . . rather than await more legal challenges that serve only to delay the project, we are proactively seeking final affirmation in federal court,” said a statement from Christie True, director of the county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

Our heart and soul

Vicki Beres is 72. Warren is 75.

Vicki Beres says the couple built their three-bedroom home themselves on a wooded lot they bought 45 years ago , “walking over two-by-fours.”

For three decades, Warren owned a sign company, doing lettering for buildings. Vicki did the paperwork.

Of their home, she says, “We have our heart and soul here. We don’t take vacations, we rarely go out for dinner.”

Vicki and Warren Beres, inside their Sammamish waterfront home that borders the East Lake Sammamish Trail. The couple built their three-bedroom home themselves on a wooded lot they bought 45 years ago.
 (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Vicki and Warren Beres, inside their Sammamish waterfront home that borders the East Lake Sammamish Trail. The couple built their three-bedroom home themselves on a wooded lot they bought 45 years ago. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

The couple has copies of documents they say attest to their ownership of the abandoned railway line by their home.

For example, about the dock they’re supposed to take down.

They have material such as a copy of a 1976 Army Corps of Engineers letter stating it had no objection to their building on navigable waters for the dock. They have the 1958 state deed allowing for a dock on the shore land.

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But the county says it owns the 200-foot-wide swath that was the right-of-way the feds had granted the railway in the late 1800s. Vicki says it’ll cut their property in half.

Warren Beres stands on the path that the county wants him to remove, along with a bridge, plants and a dock along the East Lake Sammamish
(Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Warren Beres stands on the path that the county wants him to remove, along with a bridge, plants and a dock along the East Lake Sammamish (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

A brief history:

To encourage settlement of the West, Congress passed the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. It gave railroad companies right-of-way over public lands, reasoning that would speed up development. Over the years, many of those railways were abandoned.

Long before Redmond became the mega-headquarters of Microsoft, the Redmond Historical Society described it as a “rollicking town of saloons” during its logging heyday. In the late 1800s, the railroad connected that area with what is now Issaquah, transporting back and forth logs, lumber, coal, milk and hops.

Fast forward to 1968, when Congress passed the National Trails System Act, which establishes nationwide trails for people of all ages and physical abilities to use.

The home of Vicki and Warren Beres sits on Lake Sammamish with the East Lake Sammamish Trail running through their property along with that of many of their neighbors.  (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
The home of Vicki and Warren Beres sits on Lake Sammamish with the East Lake Sammamish Trail running through their property along with that of many of their neighbors. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

And then jump to 1983, when “railbanking” was included as an amendment to the trails act. It says an abandoned railway could be used as a trail until the railroad might need it again for transport.

By 1997, the Sammamish corridor was down to a few rail trips a week to the Darigold plant in Issaquah. So BNSF (the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway) decided to give up its use.

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The next year, in 1998, through railbanking and working with the Cascade Land Conservancy, the county bought the corridor  for $3 million.

In January, the eight property owners were not the only ones who got a letter from the county.

The county also sent notices to 150 other property owners, giving them until Sept. 30 to remove “encroachments” on the trail.

Do “self-removal” or the county would do it, said the notice, and “may seek to recover all costs.”

More than $50,000 in legal fees

Among the property owners now dealing with the county are Ivan Stewart, 85, and his wife, Iris, 81. They are among those who have settled.

In 1973 they bought a small home that used to be a cabin. It’s 1,420 square feet, with two bedrooms and 1 ¾ baths. The couple raised two daughters there.

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“This is an old house. It’s pretty much like when we bought it,” says Ivan Stewart. “It’s not a multimillion-dollar home.”

It’s the land that’s so valuable, assessed at $1 million. The house itself is assessed at $158,000.

Their home sits between the trail and the lake.

Stewart points to an area just behind their living room.

“They say the railroad right-of-way cuts through there, slices through my house,” he says.

The county says it is willing to transfer its interest in the property to the Stewarts from the corridor to within 2 feet of their home. At $60 per square foot.

Stewart figures he’ll have to buy 1,000 square feet, which translates to $60,000.

At 85, he’ll have to get a loan, he says, having already paid out “easily $50,000” in legal fees.

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A retired aerospace engineer, he says, “I’ve run out of discretionary money. We have pension and Social Security.”

Stewart also built a garage on what he thought was his property. To get to it from his home, he has to walk across the trail. The county says it owns the parking area in front of the garage because it’s within railway corridor. It says only emergency vehicles, loading and unloading or short-term caregiver visits will be able to use the parking area.

The county does say the Stewarts won’t have to pay land-use fees for the parking area. But they’ll have to pay an administration fee for a 10-year permit.

“At the time I bought the property, I didn’t imagine this kind of thing would happen,” Stewart says.

Warren Beres and his wife  Vicki say their legal bills from a dispute with King County are in the tens of thousands of dollars, and that they had to refinance their home. 
(Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Warren Beres and his wife Vicki say their legal bills from a dispute with King County are in the tens of thousands of dollars, and that they had to refinance their home. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

For the property owners and trail advocates, it’s been two decades of emotions running high.

A June 4, 1997, story told how the Bereses had put chain-link fences across the tracks because they said they had received no compensation for the taking of their property. The fences were up for about a year.

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Meanwhile, a June 25, 1999, letter to the editor in The Seattle Times called Lake Sammamish a “virtual private lake where most access is barred by private land” and said the property owners were “something-for-nothing landowners.”

Vicki Beres says she remembers when the couple was at a public meeting about the trail.

“It was absolutely vicious. People laughing at somebody’s losses,” she says.

Says Warren, “It’s human nature. Someone has something you’d like, a lot of people say, ‘To hell with you.’”

Peter Goldman is the director and managing attorney of the nonprofit Washington Forest Law Center in Seattle.

Also, as a volunteer with the Cascade Land Conservancy, now Forterra, he was among those who worked on having the county buy the railway along Lake Sammamish.

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He says about the property owners: “It’s difficult to feel sorry for them. They gambled and they lost. They have absolutely no right to use these pieces of land. Every single claim has been rejected by the courts. They became accustomed to it and they think they can just sort of have it appropriated it as their own. I don’t think that’s the way the law works.”

Goldman also says he hopes the county works with the homeowners to accommodate, where possible, their improvements.

One last court battle

The Bereses say their legal bills are in the tens of thousands, and that they had to refinance their home.

However, for them, and a half-dozen other property owners, there is one last court matter.

It is at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, where you can take private claims against the federal government. But you have to file within six years “after such claim first accrues.”

Around 85 property owners filed claims, says Reid Brockway, the acting president of the nonprofit Sammamish Home Owners.

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At the heart of their case was that the feds violated the Fifth Amendment, the part  that says “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Most owners settled. Brockway and the Bereses have not. In contention was how much value their properties lost in the dispute.

Brockway has no expectation the award will be a sizable chunk of change, like when in May 2014, the U. S. Court of Federal Claims awarded $140 million to 253 property owners in King County along the Eastside rail line from Renton to Woodinville.  That line, too, had been turned into a trail.

“They offered us 20 cents on the dollar,” says Brockway. He says most of the 85 owners who filed claims took the offer “because they were so sick of dealing with the government.”

The Bereses say they haven’t decided what they’ll do if the feds compensate them  for what they believe they should receive.

Says Vicki, “It’s pretty painful living here.”

Says Goldman, “They ought to just stop fighting and enjoy the trail, and the appreciation and value it brings to their property.”