Battle Of Foothills Trail -- Foes Of Public Access Seek To Overturn Referendum

-- ORTING, Pierce County

Opponents of the Foothills Trail are not going away gently.

Accusing Pierce County of environmental insensitivity, land-grabbing and illegal election tactics, trail opponents hope to overturn a voter referendum that cleared the way for the proposed 25-mile foot, bike and horse trail.

Ultimately, they hope to stop it from ever being built.

Trail supporters call it sour grapes coming from a small group of property owners. They say the opponents are concerned only with claiming land that has been in public use for more than a century, using harassment to derail a trail that would benefit all of Pierce County.

Two short trail segments have been built by private-property owners and volunteers. County officials, who are seeking money to begin more extensive construction next year, have not announced a completion date for the project.

The battle over the planned Foothills Trail has been repeated, with variations, over many of the abandoned-rail conversions in the Puget Sound region, from the Burke-Gilman Trail to the proposed East Lake Sammamish Trail.

But the fighting over the Foothills Trail has gotten especially nasty, with claims of vandalism, threats and criminal trespassing in addition to the usual legal and political challenges.

"There's almost nothing they will not stoop to, to stop this," said Maureen Soler, an adjacent landowner who supports the trail. Soler said she and her husband had opposed the trail originally but were disturbed by anti-trail tactics.

On the other side, complaints are just as heated. "We're not mean people," said Mary Harris, president of Citizens Against the Trail, or CAT. "We've been called arsonists, bridge burners, we've been called selfish . . . It's totally unfair. We're just landowners trying to protect our private property."


Pierce County voters in November approved a plan to build a $13 million trail along abandoned railroad tracks between Buckley and McMillan, with spurs heading to Carbonado and Wilkeson. The trail would link up with King County trails at Buckley, and it could one day be part of a network of trails stretching across the continent.

CAT members collected 22,000 signatures to force November's referendum on the planned trail, claiming it would cost too much and would give criminals easy access to homes along its route. They proposed an alternate route along a pipeline.

The rail-bed trail passed by a 52-48 percent margin.

Now CAT members claim the election was tainted because the county Parks Department used county money for a brochure opponents say was inaccurate. An appeal has been filed with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).

A PDC hearing is planned for Jan. 27 or 28.


An appeal also has been filed against the county's environmental review of the project, the fourth such appeal.

According to Steve Albert, who owns property along the proposed trail route, trail construction would disturb pesticide-laden railroad beds along sensitive spawning and bird-nesting habitat.

Volunteers working to clear a section of trail recently aroused the anger of opponents when a bulldozer crossed a property line onto a section of rail bed claimed by trail opponents. CAT members registered several complaints with government agencies over the bulldozing.

"Someone ought to be jailed on it, the way I see it," said Albert.

Trail supporters say the appeals and protests are nothing but the desperate tactics of sore losers. They maintain the trail will go ahead as planned, although the opposition may slow it down and already has added substantially to its cost.


"I think it's just strictly harassment," said Ernest Bay, president of the Foothills Trail Coalition. "All of their arguments are just very capricious. They really don't hold water at all."

Jan Wolcott is the head of the Pierce County Parks Department and the subject of CAT complaints about the use of public money for a trail brochure and his private time to support the trail. He says the contested county brochure was approved by the PDC before it was ever distributed.

CAT's environmental objections are groundless, Wolcott claims. "There are ways to do the kinds of construction we need to do without inflicting any kind of damage to the environment," he said.

Bay said the trails actually would be environmentally beneficial, providing habitat, buffer zones between streams and development and corridors for wildlife migration. "What they say are out-and-out falsehoods," he said.


Opponents, in turn, describe themselves as victims of a special-interest juggernaut.

"This is a land grab, let's face it," said Albert, a CAT board member. "It's not a matter of being a poor loser."

Lynch, who grew up alongside the railroad track, said locals resent the idea that cyclists will disrupt the small-town way of life in Orting and elsewhere along the trail.

"What we're opposed to are a bunch of strangers going through here," she said. In a rural setting, trails could be tempting avenues for criminals, she said. "Where are the guarantees? Where are they going to get the funds to maintain the trail and keep it patrolled?"

According to Peter Lagerway, Seattle's bicycle coordinator, crime and vandalism were actually reduced along the Burke-Gilman Trail. "As one officer said to me, you just don't see a bicyclist with a TV set on their back," Lagerway said.

At root, much of the conflict over the trails is a clash between two sets of beliefs. Opponents feel they are losing property that is rightfully theirs, while supporters believe the public, and even adjacent landowners, are better served by putting the old railroad beds to a new public use.

The dispute is complicated by the fact that ownership of the railroad rights of way has often been obscured by time and the hasty construction of railroads a century ago.


When railroad companies were given the right to stretch tracks across the country, they were granted federal land but were supposed to purchase easements across or buy the land of private owners outright. In recently settled Washington, private ownership was often unclear, but the railroads seldom waited for such niceties as clear titles.

A century later, as railroad companies abandon unprofitable sections of track, ownership along the rights of way is even more unclear.

"For the most part, this is lost in antiquity," says Bay. "To try and trace back the ownership of some of these pieces is next to impossible. It's a Sherlock Holmes thing for everyone."

Richard Welsh has few such compunctions about declaring ownership. Director of the National Association of Reversionary Property Owners, Welsh has fought construction of the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle and the proposed East Lake Sammamish Trail. He is assisting CAT members in their fight against the Foothills Trail.

In nearly every case, Welsh says, the railroads purchased only easements. Ownership of the land under tracks remained with the original abutting property holder, he says, and has been passed on to current holders, whether they know it or not.

The rails along the route of the proposed Foothills Trail were abandoned by Burlington Northern in 1985.

"Whatever the ownerships are, we don't dispute any of them. Our objective is simply to provide a public resource," Wolcott said. "Abandoned railroads are the best places to build a public trail, and this is one of the best. That's really the issue."

Harris promises to continue the fight. The proposed trail would split a 15 to 20 acre parcel she owns, cutting off access to half of it, she said.

"We are not against trails as such," she said. "We just feel that when there is so much public land available, that ought to be used first."