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Public need vs. private property - Olympic Discovery Trail battle over private property

Posted on Wednesday 05 April 2006

Sequim Gazette

It's easy to see why Clallam County wants to build the Olympic Discovery Trail on the former railroad grade around Sequim Bay. It's a broad, level pre-built path from the current trailhead on Whitefeather Way to new trail bridges crossing Dean and Jimmycomelately creeks.

There's just one thing standing in the way - private property.
I'm not trying to block the trail; I just didn't want it to go through there, said Melvin Baker. The old railroad right of way, which he and his wife Shirley bought when the rail line closed in the 1980s, runs through a wooded parcel that's been in the family since Melvin's grandfather James Zeman homesteaded and bought land in 1903. Zeman's original house is nearby but falling down in disrepair after the Bakers moved to their current home in 1966.
The Bakers use the surrounding 10.6 acres as a part-time cattle pasture and occasionally log the upland portions for firewood and lumber that Baker cuts in a small sawmill just north of the railroad grade. If the trail were put in on the railroad grade, the fence would make using the south half of the property near impossible, he said.
Last year the county offered to buy the former railroad right of way for $33,000 based on a valuation of $30,000 per acre, Baker said. The deadline to accept the offer was March 15. The Bakers didn't accept the offer.
Joe Swordmaker, the county's land right of way agent, said the deadline was made because the county couldn't wait around in a limbo of uncertainty forever.
An e-mail circulated by the American Land Rights Association, a grassroots private property rights advocacy organization based in Battle Ground, warns that the county threatened to begin condemnation of the parcel to acquire it via eminent domain.
We're not anywhere close to that, Swordmaker said, noting the county is still in negotiations with the Bakers. Their property and that of neighbor Joyce Blenk Lingvall are the last pieces of the Olympic Discovery Trail puzzle between Whitefeather Way and tribal land to the east. The rest of the land is owned by either the state or the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, each of which actively has been involved in building the trail, or the land already has been acquired by the county.
Lingvall said she too prefers to have the trail closer to the highway rather than slicing through the center of her parcel. Though the county promised to provide access to the 1-acre bit that would be marooned on the far side of the trail, it's not the same as having a contiguous property, she said.
Lingvall said she'd consulted an attorney to discuss the county's offer to see if there were any alternative to selling the railroad right of way at what she feels is below market value or face condemnation.
Swordmaker said the condemnation process requires public hearings and would have to be initiated by the elected county commissioners not staff. Eminent domain - the taking of private property for public gain - was initiated only one time during the history of the Olympic Discovery Trail in the late 1990s, but the property owner sold the right of way in the Gasman Road area to the county before the procedure was completed, Swordmaker said.
Baker said correspondence from the county included explanations of the condemnation process but he didn't interpret it as an overt threat to take his land.
It was more implied, he said.
Baker said he thinks the trail is a good idea, so he offered to donate to the county right of way along the southern edge of his property bordering the U.S. Highway 101 right of way - minus the timber value - in lieu of the railroad right of way.
The area is an overgrown thicket of ankle-catching blackberry bushes and tall, second-growth fir trees.
Boy, I didn't realize it grew up like this, Baker said surveying the area that he'd last cleared in 1997. Holy Toledo.
The biggest logistical problem with the Bakers' alternative is that there is a deep ravine that must be crossed for the trail to skirt the edge of the property.
I can understand them wanting a 5-percent grade but they ain't going to get it at my expense, Baker said.
Now we're trying to evaluate the problems up by the highway, Swordmaker said.
The trail grade might be too steep to meet required trail standards; extensive grading, clearing and adding fill material also may be needed, he said. All that adds cost to the project.
When the railroad was first put in, the reason they located it where they did was because of the challenging geography and topography, Swordmaker said.
Baker said he was told his alternative would cost the county 10 times as much as buying the railroad right of way if the ravine had to be filled to make the trail level.
When the railroad came through in the early 1930s, Baker's grandfather didn't want to sell, Shirley Baker said.
They said if he didn't, they would confiscate it, she said. In the end the family sold it for $100.
Baker said he remembers when he was a young boy the first time he saw a train rumbling by, belching smoke. He said he was terrified and found himself pinned against trees waiting for the iron behemoth to pass. There was a crossing to haul timber across and a fence in place to keep the family's cattle off the tracks. However, one time a hired hand left the gate open and the cattle wandered across the tracks, causing the train to slow and bellow its whistle for miles, Baker recalled.
They bought the right of way back half a century later for $4,000 and a lot of hassle, Shirley Baker said.
We sure were glad to get it back, she said. We don't want to lose it again.

--by Leif Nesheim Gazette staff writer Published 4.05.06 Copyright © 2006 Olympic View Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed for any commercial purpose without permission of the Sequim Gazette.



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