Residents upset over county’s plans for trail
June 27, 2014
New: June 27, 11:20 a.m.
Years ago, when the East Lake Sammamish Trail was up for discussion, Sammamish City Council chambers were bursting at the seams. The scene was no different June 17.
More than 100 people crowded into the room to hear King County parks officials explain the work on the trail, and to express their frustrations about it.
Emotions ran high during the meeting, with those in attendance frequently cheering or shouting in agreement after a speaker laid into the county’s plans. At first, Mayor Tom Vance tried to discourage the outbursts, in keeping with standard meeting protocol, but eventually gave up and permitted the demonstrations.
The trail runs the length of the city – from Lake Sammamish State Park to Marymoor Park – near Lake Sammamish. It’s part of a regional system that offers connections to the Issaquah-Preston trail to the south, and with the Sammamish River and ultimately Burke-Gilman trails in the north.
The gravel trail opened in March 2006 and was built on a narrow strip of land, which had been right-of-way reserved for railroads.
The county, which operates the trail, had always planned to pave the gravel surface, said Monica Leers, capital planning manager for King County Parks.
“It was always envisioned that there would be a final, master-planned trail,” Leers said.
Those plans now call for an 18-foot-wide paved trail. The northern segment of the trail is now under construction, should cost about $6 million, and should be completed sometime next year. Leers said that roughly half of the construction funding comes from grants, while the remainder comes from a county parks levy.
Many residents along the trail are upset about the plan. The trail runs right next to their yards and, in some cases, it bisects their property.
At the June 17 meeting, numerous people spoke about their issues with the trail. No one said they were opposed to the trail’s overall existence. They were, however, upset with the way the county is managing the project, with many residents saying their comments and concerns are being ignored.
Others pleaded with the city to get involved, since it has a say in how the project unfolds via the permitting process.
Laundry list of problems
Residents’ concerns ranged from legal to emotional issues.
The trail is built on an old rail easement that was turned over to the county. There is a dispute about who owns the underlying land since records from that area are often murky. In some cases, it seems the residents own the land and had only given an easement to the railroad. In other cases, the county claims it owns the land outright. In still other instances, there seems to be a lack of documentation about just how much of an easement exists.
“The county has no documentation about the width of their easement,” said resident Gene Morel.
Other property owners noted they’re going to have to live with a popular park abutting their yards, and want some degree of privacy from potential gawkers.
“It’s not that we want to walk around in our underwear, but we want privacy,” said a resident.
The larger theme among residents was a feeling of powerlessness against the county.
Many complained the county is being inflexible about the trail’s alignment and width. They argue that shifting the trail a few feet in one direction or another could help preserve significant trees or wetlands. Other have pointed to areas where they say narrowing the trail slightly would have the same sort of positive environmental effects.
“We’re not opposed to the trail, but what we are opposed to is this county juggernaut,” resident Chuck Myer said.
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Peter Goldman and Matt Cohen, who do not live in Sammamish, led conservancy efforts that created the trail, and also spoke in favor of the county listening to residents.
The county’s response
Leers, the county parks manager, said the county has little leeway in its designs. She said the county must abide by local, state and federal regulations, and secure permits from those agencies.
The trail width, which includes a 12-foot paved segment flanked by two feet of gravel and one more foot of cleared space, is needed to accommodate the expected number of users, while the paved surface is needed to allow access for users who might have disabilities.
The alignment, she said, can be tricky. In some cases, there may be a steep slope or wetland which forces the trail into an alignment that goes into a resident’s yard.
Leers said that the county wants to be flexible, but it has safety and environmental standards that can constrain its options.
“I pledge that we will work in good faith with property owners to be flexible when we can,” she said.
She also said the county is responding to residents’ comments. She said the county has received about 300 comments and has issued a response to all but six of them. She cautioned, however, that doesn’t mean that people were happy with the resolutions, since sometimes residents may get an answer they don’t like.
City weighs in
Sammamish officials had some questions of their own for the county. City Manager Ben Yazici asked the county’s lawyers to work with the city’s lawyers to hash out issues of ownership. He also suggested that the county draw on the expertise of staff such as the city’s wetland biologist, who are more familiar with the landscape.
“Let us help you in the next phase,” Yazici said.
Councilmembers also asked a series of specific questions. Rather than guessing, Leers said she would research the answers and provide them to the council later.
Councilmembers also stressed that they would like to see the county be more flexible in their dealings with residents.
There are two remaining trail segments to be constructed, noted Councilwoman Nancy Whitten. She suggested the county should start gathering input sooner from residents in those areas, in order to make it seem less like they are waiting until the last minute.
“These are passionate issues because you are intruding right under the bedroom window in some cases,” she said.