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Public or private? Seattle neighbors fight for Lake Washington access point

A northeast Seattle neighborhood is fighting to keep property owners from claiming a popular public access point to Lake Washington they argue belongs to the city. (Photo courtesy David Pope)
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On a nice day, David Pope loves to take a short walk down the street from his northeast Seattle home and launch his windsurfer or jump in the water from a small, public access right-of-way along Lake Washington.

Pope and many other neighbors have been using the street end surrounded by homes on either side along Riviera Place NE for decades.

"There are just all kinds of people from the neighborhood and even from outside the neighborhood who stop there, maybe put a rubber raft in, bring their kids with inner tubes," says retired attorney Randy Brook, who's been using the waterfront access for over 20 years. "It's just a way for people who don't live on the water to get to the water."

So their curiosity was piqued when a vague sign, taped to a Seattle Parks Department sign, showed up early this year saying there were some questions about the waterfront access.

"It just said that there were some issues that needed to be resolved and so after a time, I wondered what are the issues. So I started calling," Pope says.

Brook, a retired attorney, started asking around as well. What Pope and Brook learned angered them. The owners of the houses on each side had filed a lawsuit claiming ownership of the public access.

"This has always been public. It's clear they were trying to make a land grab without anyone knowing," Pope says.

But the claim by Keith and Kay Holmquist and Frederick Kaseburg argues the easement has been part of their property since King County vacated the street end back in 1932.

"The facts are simple," says the lawsuit. "Under the law then and now, title to the platted street end was always in the adjoining owners of platted lots."

King County Superior Court Judge Monica Benton agreed, ruling in favor of the property owners earlier this year.

The ruling surprised both King County and the City of Seattle, which joined the suit because the land became part of the city when the area was annexed in the 1950's.

The city argues, in its own filing, the property owners painted "a simplistic picture of the chain of land ownership and street vacation," and that their predecessors were never the rightful owners of the land after it was vacated.

"That street end was never transferred to the adjacent property owners," says Assistant City Attorney Kelly Stone. "So the adjacent property owners have the same right to use the street end as any other community member. It's just that the city's legal position is that the Holmquists and Mr. Kaseberg do not own the street end and the city still maintains the right of way as they always have, shows the law."

Both the city and county are appealing the judge's ruling. In the meantime, swimmers and boaters are doing all they can to preserve their access to the lake, including forming a community group. And Brook says it's about far more than just the one right-of-way, arguing it's symptomatic of a much bigger problem all over the area.

"Some people who live alongside public property somehow think they have an entitlement to it and they'll either plant trees to block the public, or they'll cut trees to improve their view and they're taking something away from the public," Brook says.

The easement is just one of many public access points around the city. The city argues a number of property owners have had plenty of opportunity to lay claim to the easement in the past 60 years. And its filing points out neighboring property owners were sent notice of plans to improve a number of shoreline street ends, including NE 130th Street in February 2009, three years before Kaseburg and the Holmquist's made their claim.

The property owners have declined comment. The neighborhood will be allowed to continue using their beloved access to the lake. And they say the property owners owe them and the public an apology.

"Bottom line, they're trying to get something for nothing," Pope says.

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