Offshore Housing Or Off-The-Wall Idea? -- Tideflats Plan May Get Bogged In A Legal Mire

Ever taken a stroll along Seattle's Sampson Avenue? A promenade down Puget Avenue West?

Unless you're a seal or a seagull, the answer is no. Sampson and Puget exist only on paper, in the tideflats off Magnolia Bluff. They were phantoms, cartographic curiosities.

Until now.

A developer has bought 16 1/2 lots on the tideflats on 49th Avenue West, another phantom street, just offshore from exclusive Perkins Lane. Thomas Simard said he hopes to build 15 or 16 houses there on pilings, each with its own moorage, linked to land by acauseway.

"It's very preliminary," he said, "but we're talking something very select, very luxurious, $3 million to $5 million homes."

"A new Blue Ridge, a new Broadmoor, but on the water," said Sam Sampson, Simard's architect.

Environmentalists and neighbors are aghast. But Simard said nine months of research has convinced him that what he's proposing is perfectly legal.

And Seattle's Department of Construction and Land Use said he just may be right.

If so, residents of Perkins Lane would consider it the ultimate irony. They say they've been living for 20 years with restrictions the city imposed to comply with the state's landmark Shoreline Management Act.

"Everybody who lives down here can't build a thing," said Margery Hellmann.

They assumed similar restrictions applied to the tideflats, and admit they passed up opportunities to buy Simard's lots from the previous owner. "It seemed like buying the Brooklyn Bridge," said Sue Tripp, who is remodeling a house on land just north of Simard's property.

Tripp, Hellmann and other Perkins Lane residents worry about the project's impact on recreation, wildlife and their expansive views, which stretch from West Point and the Olympics to Vashon Island and Alki.

Environmentalists say there's more at stake here - the integrity of the Shoreline Management Act, with its emphasis on preservation, public access and water-dependent use of shorelines.

"If the city's shoreline program would allow this, then there's something wrong with the city's shoreline program," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound.

Simard hasn't filed an application for anything yet. But he said he has consulted several land-use lawyers, and anticipates a lengthy legal struggle.

All tidelands - lands between the low- and high-tide lines - belonged to the state a century ago. The environmental value of such wetlands wasn't appreciated then, and 60 percent - about 3 million acres - was sold before the state halted the practice in 1971.


Off Magnolia, speculators platted thousand of acres early in the century, hoping that one day fill dirt would cover the cobbles and muck. The era's ambitious engineers dredged and filled the Duwamish River estuary and decapitated Denny Hill, but they never made it to the tideflats off Magnolia.

The tideflats remained untouched. That included the 6.1 acres Simard now owns. "This is private property, and has been forever," said Sampson, the architect.

It's zoned for single-family homes. And it's classified "conservancy recreation" in Seattle's shoreline program, a designation that permits single-family houses built over water - but not on fill - if they are on privately owned and appropriately zoned lots platted before 1977.

"It appears it shows up as a permitted use," Andy McKim, senior land-use specialist with the city's Department of Construction and Land Use.

"There does seem to be that provision in there," said environmental attorney Richard Aramburu, who admits he hadn't noticed it in the shoreline program before. "It's just so unusual."

That doesn't mean Simard's proposal has clear sailing. McKim said any application will be subjected to rigorous environmental review. Since the lots weren't developed for so many years, Aramburu said, opponents could argue the plat has been abandoned, that the lots no longer legally exist.

City zoning and shoreline ordinances aren't the only laws that apply. Simard also must win the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, and state departments of Fisheries and Wildlife, among others.

Then there's the Public Trust Doctrine, a legal theory that suggests public uses of tidelands - navigation, recreation, wildlife habitat - have priority over private-property rights.

"He doesn't own the tidelands he thinks he owns," Benella Caminiti, a founder of the Seattle Shorelines Coalition, said of Simard. "This is absolute nonsense."

But the prospect of a small village on stilts, just off their beaches, still alarms Perkins Lane residents. Other phantom blocks in the tideflats have the same zoning, the same shoreline designation.

"This isn't the only place where the state sold off the tidelands," said Sue Tripp. "If people could build out a quarter-mile like it's platted, it would be disastrous."

She and Hellmann say the tideflats get plenty of use, human and nonhuman. Beachcombers spill over from nearby Discovery Park. Great blue herons, seals, sea lions and migratory ducks frequent the area. At low tide one day last week, an immature bald eagle perched on a boulder in the mud.


Even if it's legal, Perkins Lane residents question whether Simard's development would be practical. Exposed tideflats extend seaward far beyond his property at low tide. Hellmann wonders if wealthy homebuyers would want to live half their lives teetering above mud, their yachts high and dry.

Simard maintains marketing won't be a problem. Sampson said yacht moorage might entail dredging and a breakwater.

But the city's shoreline program appears to allow dredging in "conservancy recreation" shorelines only for water-dependent uses - which houses aren't - installation of utility lines, or fish and wildlife enhancement.

Such potential restrictions cause some to question Simard's true intent. "Is this a ploy to get compensated (by government)?" wonders Fletcher of People for Puget Sound. "Is he laying the groundwork to get bought out?"

Simard said he's serious. "This is a very ticklish situation," he said. "I'm not out for attention."