Lake Sammamish couple file lawsuit in trail controversy
SAMMAMISH -- Who owns the land under the proposed East Lake Sammamish Trail?
by Tim Larson
The first in a long-anticipated series of lawsuits intended to answer that question has been filed against King County by two trailside residents, Gerald and Kathryn Ray.
The Rays, whose lakeside back yard is bisected by the proposed trail route, have filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court asking a judge to decide whether they, or King County, own the land.
The Rays claim the railroad, which used to run through their back yard, had only an easement.
The county, which purchased the 12-mile stretch of old Burlington Northern right-of-way from The Land Conservancy in 1998, claims the railroad had full ownership of the land.
The Rays' attorney, John Groen, says his review of old deeds leaves him with no doubt.
"We think we're 100 percent right," Groen said.
Finding out whether a judge agrees, though, will take some time.
"A lot will depend on how the county wants to proceed," Groen said. "It will take several months, no matter what."
Although the suit, filed May 26, focuses only on who owns the right-of-way in the Rays' back yard, a ruling in favor of the Rays would make the county hard-pressed to charge many residents for the use of long-established driveways, garages, toolsheds and gardens that have gradually accumulated on or near the old rail corridor.
It also would open the door for further legal action, including a claim for compensation by the county for the use of the Rays' land.
Elaine Kraft, spokeswoman for King County Executive Ron Sims, says the county's claim on the land is solid.
"Our attorneys have gone to great lengths to determine that the great extent of the trail is owned by King County," Kraft said. But "we will certainly give (the suit) our full attention."
Even if it doesn't own the land, the county has the right, thanks to federal "rails-to-trails" legislation, to build a recreational trail on the old right-of-way.
Sims has described the proposed trail, currently undergoing environmental review, as a very high priority for his administration.
The state's bicycle clubs and other potential trail users also have been pushing hard, asking for early use of the trail before a master plan produces a final configuration.
Many trailside residents have fiercely opposed any interim use.
The Rays are among more than 100 trailside residents who've consulted with Steve Graddon, a well-respected title researcher who says the historical paper trail supports the residents.
In most of the cases he's looked at, Graddon says, the county does not own the sections of rail bed running through homeowners' lots.
The right of way, 200 feet wide in some places, runs through the property of some 400 property owners along the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish.