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    Eastside Journal

    Trail's latest controversy: crossing fees - East Lake Sammamish homeowners upset by fees to cross old rail line

    by Tim Larson
    Journal Reporter

    SAMMAMISH-- Homeowners along the East Lake Sammamish Trail, incensed with the county's decision to charge them for crossing the trail on existing driveways, hope to hear their cause championed by a King County Council member today.

    "These kinds of exorbitant crossing fees make organized crime look like the good guys," said a sympathetic Kent Pullen, who heads the council's Management, Labor and Customer Services Committee.

    Some homeowners, who need to drive their cars across the recreational trail to reach their homes, have been asked to pay fees as high as $6,000 for a five-year crossing right.

    Previously, before the Burlington Northern Railroad abandoned the right-of-way and the county took control, the most any homeowner had to pay was $100 for a five-year period.

    At today's meeting, Pullen says he'll be asking county officials why the fees are so high and why they're not imposed elsewhere.

    "I don't know of any (other place) that these fees are being charged," Pullen said. "It appears that the action against the East Lake Sammamish homeowner's is either discriminatory or, even worse, retaliatory."

    But King County Parks spokesman Al Dams says the fees are imposed in many other places and are not optional. The state constitution makes it illegal to "allow private use of public property without compensation," Dams said.

    The fee levels are based on a standard county formula which factors in property values and how much public land is being used, he said.

    The county is studying the possibility of lower fees, Dams said, but is using the existing formula when the crossing fee is triggered by a resident's land-use permit application.

    "The last thing we want to do is hold up somebody's activity while we work through the process of deciding how to apply these fees on the trail," Dams said.

    Trailside resident Vicki Beres says some people are afraid if they don't sign the crossing-fee documents, they won't get their land-use permits.

    "It's extortion by the parks department," Beres said. "They're trying to make us the cash cow for the parks department."

    Beres is also outraged by reports that the county will force homeowners to carry liability insurance to protect the county from injury claims on the trail.

    But Dams says that's not the case: "This is an absolutely non-issue."

    According to Dams, only homeowners who build a do-it-yourself driveway across the trail would have to take out insurance -- and then only for the period of construction.

    In a related matter, Pullen also revealed yesterday that he sent a letter to county Prosecutor Norm Maleng expressing his continuing concern over the manner in which the county acquired the 12-mile right-of-way.

    The Sept. 13 letter, co-signed by Councilman Chris Vance, asks Maleng whether the county could have saved $2.5 million by buying the old railbed directly from Burlington Northern.

    An intermediary owner, the Land Conservancy of Seattle and King County, paid $1.5 million for the path before turning around and selling it immediately to King County.

    The letter says the Land Conservancy has "gotten or will have gotten over $4 million in a quick turnaround" for the property.

    A similar letter, signed by Pullen and Vance, was also sent to the King County Ombudsman's office asking for a review of the "unusually close relationship" between the Land Conservancy and the county.

    In June, county auditor Don Eklund told the council he could find nothing wrong with county's purchase of the rail bed.

    The letters from Pullen and Vance, though, say that audit was too narrow in scope and didn't address all the issues.

    One example, according to their letter: "It is not entirely clear to us what property or title King County received."

    That's a rallying point for Beres and other residents who say the land that supported the old railroad tracks still belongs to them.

    They say many of the original landowners granted an easement to the railroad, but never sold the land outright.

    That means the Land Conservancy had no right to buy the land from the railroad and pass it on to King County, they say.

    And that makes the crossing fee issue all the more galling to Beres.

    "It's not the county's land," she said.