LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. (AP) — A judge has ruled that a lake at the heart of the affluent Portland suburb of Lake Oswego is a public resource.
The city about eight miles southwest of Portland banned the public from entering the nearly 3-mile-long Oswego Lake from three parks in 2012, but a kayaker and swimmer sued.
The plaintiffs argued the lake was public under a state law because it’s a navigable body of water and had effectively been illegally privatized for wealthy, lakefront homeowners.
The ruling Tuesday doesn’t mean the public will immediately be able to use Oswego Lake. A second trial will determine if the city can limit public use of its three easily accessible swim parks due to liability concerns.
Clackamas County Circuit Judge Ann Lininger will take up the second part of the case in July, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
“Nothing has changed,” said Jeff Ward, general manager of the Lake Oswego Corporation, which has roughly 2,400 members who hold shares in the company or have easements on the lake. “There’s been no ruling granting public access. The city’s park rules are still in effect.”
Lininger’s 15-page ruling notes that Oswego Lake has been “functionally privatized,” as million-dollar homes surround nearly all of the lake’s 2.9-mile-long shoreline and the city has installed signs and barriers preventing access at its three lakeside parks.
City officials formally adopted a resolution banning public lake access at parks in 2012, citing liability issues, though signs prohibiting access had already been in place for some time.
Activists Mark Kramer, a kayaker, and Todd Prager, a swimmer, sued the city, state and Department of State Lands that year in a bid to enshrine the public right to navigate Oswego Lake.
The lawsuit took a winding path to the Oregon Supreme Court, which in 2020 sent the litigation back to Clackamas County Circuit Court to determine whether the lake was in fact owned by the state and held in the public trust.
Nadia Dahab, a lawyer for the activists, said Wednesday that she was pleased with Lininger’s “thoughtful decision.”
“We still have a lot of work to do before anything changes at Oswego Lake, but the court’s order recognizes, rightfully, that our state’s natural resources cannot be privatized — they exist for the public, and must be protected for public use,” Dahab said in a statement.
The lake, which is home to some of the Portland area’s pricest waterfront properties, was once much smaller.
Residents nearly doubled the lake’s size in the 1920s by blasting a basalt canal connecting a natural body of water, called Sucker Lake, to Lakewood Bay. Experts testified in court that the original lake had a maximum depth of 34 feet and was about 61% the size of today’s lake, but was used extensively by the public and stocked with fish by the state.
Lininger said the public trust doctrine applies to the entire body of water, even though the activists haven’t yet established that the state owns the land beneath the expanded portion of the lake.
“There is no meaningful way to segregate the public trust water from the other water in the lake: it intermixes and flows together,” Lininger wrote in her ruling.
The Oswego Lake Corporation opposes Lininger’s ruling and says it’s about private property rights.