Washington Legislature Considering Legislation That Would Limit Access

posted January 17, 2018
by Thomas O'Keefe

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The Washington State legislature is considering a bill that could significantly impact river access in Washington State. Public road right-of-ways that dead end on waterways provide important access to rivers and marine shorelines across Washington State for kayakers, rafters, canoeists, sea kayakers, and fishermen. Paddlers who enjoy the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie for example are familiar with the Tanner take-out where an old bridge crossing site is a King County right-of-way between two private parcels that serves as the take-out for this popular run.
 
Under current state law, established and unchanged since 1969, a County is prohibited from vacating right-of-ways that abut a body of water “unless the vacation is to enable any public authority to acquire the vacated property for port purposes, boat moorage or launching sites, or for park, viewpoint, recreational, educational or other public purposes, or unless the property is zoned for industrial uses." (RCW 36.87.130)
 
House Bill 2521 and Senate Bill 6152 would add new language to state law that would allow a county to vacate a public right-of-way abutting a waterway “for the protection of public safety.” While this determination would be made through a public process, it would happen at the county level. We would have to track proceedings across multiple counties and it would be difficult for members who recreate on rivers but live outside the county to participate. Furthermore, no definition of public safety is provided and one could imagine a county making the argument that providing access to a challenging whitewater run results in a “public safety” concern.
 
The motivation for this bill is illegal trespassing on private land along the Lewis River in Clark County; NW Lancaster Road dead ends at the Lewis River adjacent to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad bridge crossing the Lewis River, known locally as the Ghost Bridge (45.8632°, -122.7503°). Members of the public use the county road that abuts the Lewis River and then leave the road corridor to trespass on private land including the railroad bridge. Fatalities have occurred when individuals on the bridge have been struck by approaching trains. The adjacent farm has also reported significant issues with trespassing and vandalism.
 
While we are sympathetic to the issues faced by the local landowner, we are concerned that the current language of the bill has wide-reaching implications for access to rivers and shorelines across the state.
 
The Washington legislature makes it very easy for constituents to make a comment on a bill and we encourage members to weigh in. A simple comment as follows will suffice, but it is always good to personalize with a short sentence on the importance of access to waterways for the activities you enjoy.
 
Comment on HB 2521 <https://app.leg.wa.gov/pbc/bill//2521>
Comment on SB 6152 <https://app.leg.wa.gov/pbc/bill//6152>
 
I oppose HB2521/SB6152 which will create a new mechanism to limit public access to waterways in Washington State by adding public safety as a consideration to vacate a county road that abuts a public waterway. While public safety is important, the standards for applying it are undefined in the bill and I am concerned that this could lead to broad closures of many sites where the public can access waterways in our state through right-of-ways.
 
We have received assurance from the sponsors that they will modify the bills, and public pressure will ensure that this happens. Rather than rushing a bill in this short session, our preference would be to gain a better understanding of the site-specific issues before applying a new standard for vacating road that will have statewide implications for river access.
 
Additional Information
 
Those interested in watching the hearing for a more complete discussion of the issues can do so on TVW. You can fast forward to the discussion of this bill in the video based on the times indicated below.
 
House Local Government Committee
https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2018011182
Hearing on HB 2521: 31:55 - 42:50 (O’Keefe testimony 36:40 - 39:10)
 
Senate Local Government Committee
https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2018011185
Hearing on SB 6152: 24:10 - 27:10; 42:40 - 52:40 (O’Keefe testimony 49:00 - 50:55)
 
In addition to the local landowner, Clark County and King County (David Foster and April Putney representing the King County Executive) signed in supporting this bill. American Whitewater testified in opposition.
 
Thomas O'Keefe
3537 NE 87th St.
Seattle, WA 98115
Phone: 425-417-9012


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