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May 12, 1997

Parks battle moves to boulevards

Journal editor

If it looks like a street and acts like a street it must be a street, right?

Yes, unless it's a city park. Property owners along boulevards on Magnolia, Queen Anne and Lake Washington are discovering that property they once considered theirs, isn't.

Many of the city's boulevards look like streets but are actually lined with narrow parks. In the case of Bigelow Avenue on Queen Anne, the city owns the 30-feet-wide paved street as well as about 15 feet of property on either side of the street, much of which has been covered over the last 85 years with plantings, fences, driveways, sidewalks, garages and, in some cases, parts of houses.

About half of the yard in front of Jonathan Chalett's Bigelow Avenue house belongs to the city.

"I knew that when I bought it but I thought so what?" he said. "If the city had a global plan to landscape the street and money to pay for it maybe I'd go along. But there is no way they can make it look like a public walkway. If they took it over it would definitely make this place look weird."

The encroachments of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's home onto Viretta Park near Lake Washington brought the issue to public attention and forced the city to take action to return public lands to public use. The Seattle Parks Department is developing design guidelines to make the boulevard parks easily recognizable as public property and will submit them to the Seattle City Council this summer for approval.

Boulevards like Bigelow Avenue on Queen Anne are lined with narrow strips of public land.
Photo by Jon Savelle

Doug Jackson, president of the Friends of Seattle's Olmsted Parks, said the plan the Olmsted Brothers laid out in 1912 was never realized and that has made it easier for people to ignore the park property lines in some areas. Jackson said there is less of a problem around the "grand promenades" such as Lake Washington Boulevard and Mount Baker Boulevard where the public space is more apparent.

"It's amazing to me," Jackson said. "At every meeting we have people continue to be surprised to find out, 'Gosh! You mean half of my front yard is public property?"'

Jackson admits that maintaining the boulevard parks hasn't been a priority for the city before, but it is now and he thinks it is worth all the trouble to return the property to public use. Some of the encroachments are subtle but others are substantial, Jackson said, including a private swimming pool on city park land along Magnolia Boulevard. All of them deprive the public of land that is rightfully theirs.

"The department has been conscious of (encroachments)," said Terry Dunning, real estate manager for the Seattle Parks Department. "But it requires an incredible amount of effort to do these things. It's a very difficult process.

"It's taken us 100 years to get into this sorry mess. It's going to take us a while to get out of it."

Getting out of the mess often involves creating an even bigger one. The department has broken the boulevard problem into a series of projects in different geographical areas: Queen Anne, Interlaken, the Arboretum and Carkeek Park. Cheasty Boulevard in South Beacon Hill and the Duwamish Head Greenbelt are also being considered for inclusion in the planning process.

Surveys are being done to establish property lines, which sometimes come as a surprise to property owners. Dunning said some of the areas haven't been surveyed in the past so property lines aren't well defined. In other cases, sellers didn't disclose the park land when property changed hands. Some property owners don't realize they have taken over public park land and some do but figured the city wasn't interested in claiming it. For whatever reason, many people have come to think of the land as their own and have built on it or maintained it for years.

"Adverse possession" is a legal principle that allows a private property owner who has been openly occupying someone else's private property for 10 years to claim ownership, but that doesn't work with public lands, though some people have tried to make that claim, Dunning said. "We've heard it all."

The parks department is developing restoration plans and design guidelines for the parks now. Dunning said the city will look at existing plans or develop new ones with specific guidelines.

Whether major physical changes are made will depend on the plans that are developed, Dunning said, and the appropriation of funds to implement them. The city is now doing tree planting in some areas and may raise funds for more substantial changes such as sidewalks through local improvement districts.

Generally, Dunning expects structures won't have to be moved but property owners may have to make lot boundary adjustments and give up some land elsewhere to the city. The city may also decide to permit use by the current owners for an annual fee but require removal of encroaching structures when a property is redeveloped.

Existing flower beds and plantings may be acceptable if they have a consistent theme along a boulevard. But if paved areas encroach on areas where a plan calls for ground cover, the city will expect property owners to remove the paving. Fences and driveways may need to be removed or reduced in size.

Whatever plans are made for the boulevards, Dunning said the city will depend on private property owners to help with maintenance of the park areas.

"We have to balance our obligations as a public property owner and our ability to provide maintenance with the public's right to access," Dunning said. With miles of park land bordering the city's boulevards, "We might not be able to maintain to the standards of private owners. The plan is going to have to include private owners."

The city is concentrating on Bigelow Avenue now, but over time it will deal with all the boulevards as well as the Burke Gilman Trail. Ravenna Boulevard is not a problem because the city's park strip runs down the center of the boulevard and hasn't been encroached upon, Dunning said.

Puget Boulevard in West Seattle is another public park strip but it has no street at all. "I like that one," Dunning said.

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