3-18-06 article

East Lake Sammamish Trail trail finally opening

March 18, 2006: Full story

By Sonia Krishnan Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The long-awaited, long-fought opening of the East Lake Sammamish Trail has finally arrived.

After nearly a decade of litigation, 11 miles of an abandoned railroad bed open Tuesday as a public trail. It connects Redmond to Issaquah and provides a critical link in a 40-mile trail system that stretches from Ballard to the northern tip of Lake Washington and south to Interstate 90.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring King County Executive Ron Sims and Sammamish Mayor Michele Petitti will mark the official opening, though the trail is available for use now.

"This is a treasure," Sims said. "Years from now, no one will remember the fight."

The region’s trail system could expand even more in the coming years. King County is in negotiations with BNSF Railway to potentially buy a 47-mile rail corridor that stretches from Renton to the city of Snohomish. That corridor would tie into Snohomish County’s Centennial Trail, which now runs from Snohomish to Arlington, and the Sammamish River Trail, which goes from Marymoor Park in Redmond to Bothell, where it links with the Burke-Gilman.

Ultimately, there could be uninterrupted routes from Renton in the south to Skagit County in the north, Seattle and Puget Sound in the west and Redmond and Issaquah in the east.

The East Lake Sammamish Trail also will be a link to the John Wayne Pioneer Trail that goes over the Cascades to the Idaho border. The new East Lake Sammamish gravel trail will initially be open to walkers and cyclists riding bikes with thicker tires, such as mountain bikes or hybrids. No horses will be allowed.

The path, which cost the county $1.6 million to build, will serve as an interim trail until the county can pave it with asphalt to make it more amenable to cyclists, strollers and skateboarders. No parking will be added. Eventually, it will be a 12-foot-wide paved trail with gravel shoulders, said Robert Nunnenkamp, property agent for King County.

Along the portion near Southeast 33rd Street, stretches of fencing separate the trail from waterfront homes. The county has posted several signs telling trail users that "areas outside the former railbed are closed to the public."

Still, some property owners have taken the extra step of posting "No Trespassing" warnings on their lots. Homeowners who battled the trail for years say that despite their ambivalence, they’re ready to make the best of it. "What else can you do?" said Colleen Buck, who has lived with her husband along the lake since 1982. "We’ve just come to the point where we accept it. We’re trying to be really positive about it. The trail will be handy for us to use."

Controversy arose in 1998 after the county bought the abandoned rail corridor for $2.9 million through a federal program known as Rails to Trails, which allows railroads to sell, lease or donate the rights of way on routes they no longer operate to private organizations or local governments for trails.

The 11-mile project became entangled in courtroom battles after more than 20 lawsuits were filed by people whose high-value homes sit near Lake Sammamish. They spent millions arguing against the seven-mile midsection of the trail, saying it would invade their privacy and attract crime. Meanwhile, in 2004 the county opened two small sections of the trail — a total of 3 miles — in Redmond and Issaquah.

Last spring, the opponents pulled out of the fight after losing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to the Cascade Land Conservancy and a citizens’ group called Friends of East Lake Sammamish Trail. The county then received its remaining permits to move forward and began construction on the seven-mile link last summer. It was supposed to open in January, but rain led to delays.

"When the lawsuits got dropped, that was the cake," Sims said. "The frosting will be Tuesday, when one can walk on it unimpeded."

Reid Brockway, a lakeside resident who took part in the legal appeals, said he had mixed feelings about the trail opening. He said he was pleasantly surprised that county officials listened to the residents and installed heavy fencing along the route, and he will use the trail just like everyone else.

But he’s still worried that the trail will bring added crime to the neighborhood, from burglaries to trespassing. And he said he isn’t happy that county officials will celebrate the opening even after ignoring the neighbors’ concerns during the legal fight.

But he also realizes only time will tell. "I’d characterize the whole thing as a bit of an experiment," Brockway said. "Until the experiment has a chance to run a while, it will be hard to know what to think."

Seattle Times Eastside bureau reporters Ashley Bach and Karen Gaudette contributed to this report.
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com