Controversy over 'pocket park' sparks complicated legal battle

NORTH SEATTLE - Dave Pope is the kind of guy that goes wherever the wind takes him: long board, high sails, often found windsurfing on Lake Washington. Even when the lake was calm, however, a storm was brewing between Pope and some of his neighbors.

"It's very strange and unfair," he said. "I don't quite understand how it's gotten to this point," Pope said.

Pope has lived in the Cedar Park neighborhood of North Seattle for about 20 years. As long as he - or many other people here - can remember, a small piece of land along Riviera Place NE has provided public access to Lake Washington - a place for kids to swim, teenagers to fish, or adults to launch boats and kayaks.

The plot of land is small - about 50 feet wide in most parts - a mix of sand, dirt, and grass. Large logs provide makeshift benches. An old beach chair provides a place to rest or relax.

The city calls it the NE 130th Street End, and even slated it for improvements as part of a 2008 voter-approved levy. That is, until neighbors on either side of the land filed a lawsuit, arguing the land is rightfully theirs.

"The facts are simple," reads the suit. "In 1932 King County vacated a platted street end. Under the law then and now, title to the platted street end was always in the adjoining owners of platted lots."

"It's actually complicated - very complicated legally," said assistant city attorney Kelly Stone, who is handling the case for the Seattle city attorney's office. "This street end for 80 or 100 years has always been treated as a public right-of-way that the public has used to access the shoreline."

"This is a really important issue to the public," Stone added.

Earlier this year, a superior court judge sided with the adjacent land owners and ruled that the beach belongs to them. The city and the county have appealed the ruling.

One of the two parties who filed suit declined to comment on the case. "It's still in litigation," he told KOMO 4 News. The other party didn't respond to a business card left at their door.

The ruling isn't sitting well with neighbors who live nearby.

"This is a very valuable spot for people to have access to the waterfront. Not everybody can afford waterfront property," said Mary Starkebaum, who has lived on Riviera Place for almost 20 years.

"(It seems) greedy, but sort of unnecessarily so," she said of the lawsuit. "They already have their waterfront property and they have ownership of the property. Shouldn't they have been paying taxes on it over the years?"

The appeals process will likely last through the end of the year, with a ruling coming down in late 2013 or early 2014. Until then, the beach remains open to anyone, Stone said.

"I'd hate to see it not be able to be used by the public," added Pope. "I just think it's selfish for two land owners to claim it for their own. Very anti-community, I think."