Road end falls into dispute

Neighbors descending a staircase at the Hidden Cove road end. Public vehicular access to the top of the bluff could be lost if the city and a private developer agree to controversial improvements there.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Neighbors descending a staircase at the Hidden Cove road end. Public vehicular access to the top of the bluff could be lost if the city and a private developer agree to controversial improvements there.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Some access to the water could be lost at Hidden Cove as city, developer negotiate.

Public road ends are gateways to a multitude of activities.

From her home at the end of Hidden Cove Road, Diane Dwyer has seen her share of dog walking, hand holding and general enjoyment of the beach below.

A few years ago, she even witnessed a group of about 50 people observing the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana.

“I don’t know where they all parked,” said Dwyer, who has lived there since 1983. “But the whole group walked to the water’s edge to cast away their sins.”

On Thursday, standing at the base of the stairs at the road end, it wasn’t sin, but temptation, that worried Dwyer and City Road Ends Committee Chair Bitsy Ostenson.

Like many Hidden Cove Residents, they are uneasy about possible changes to the long-standing access to the beach. Details of the plan remain hazy, but the city – despite the contrary recommendation of the Road Ends Committee – is at least considering elimination of the current dirt road in exchange for improvements paid for by a developer.

“Of course that’s a very tempting thought,” Ostenson said, of the prospect of money to shore up the road end.

“But it’s not a very happy thought, perhaps.”

That’s because, along with uncertainty about the specific fate of Hidden Cove, Ostenson and others are worried about what kind of precedent the city’s dealings there will ultimately set with road ends, which often are the sites of controversy.

The Hidden Cove issue began last fall, when island architect Ron Holsman took an interest in the “Walker property,” a one and a half acre lot for sale adjacent to Dwyers; the land includes the dirt road that has long served as the public access point to the water.

Neighbors and the city claim the public has a prescriptive right to the road, which has existed for more than a century. Holsman, who now is under contract to buy the property, disagrees.

He declined to discuss the details of his claim, but said he’s confirmed his position with legal research. He said he respects the concerns of neighbors, but hopes they’ll wait until all the facts are in to dismiss his proposal.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Holsman said. “But the public may not have what they think they have. I don’t think the city ever established it as a public road – it’s always been a driveway.”

Like Holsman’s legal claim, details of the proposal itself aren’t entirely clear. Among other possible upgrades, it would include better drainage – the absence of which now is eroding the hillside – and perhaps public parking, which now doesn’t exist.

Both of those are changes the Road Ends Committee has already asked for but the city can’t afford to implement.

The biggest and most controversial change would be the removal of the dirt road in favor of what Holsman called a “serpentine path with wooded views.”

Though the path would allow for continued public access to the beach, it would block vehicle access to the top of the bluff.

Holsman said his solution would be better than what now exists at Hidden Cove.

“The goal is to improve, not remove public access, so that it’s more consistent with the public interest and the ultimate goals of the city,” he said. “One of the reasons I went to the city in the first place was to obviate some of the problems that exist from a user standpoint. Anyone who’s fair-minded would like (the proposed solution).”

But neighbors of the road end, nearly 30 of whom crowded into a Road Ends Committee meeting, said they’d prefer the current access to any proposed alternative.

In addition to their strong turnout at the meeting, nearly 100 Hidden Cove residents have signed a petition opposing the changes. Three Council members also attended the meeting.

“You don’t have to propose a trail,” said one woman, “because we don’t want it.”

Others wondered why the city would even consider the plan, Due to a road vacation in 1993, no formal right of way now exists, but the city and neighbors believe the public has a prescriptive right to the roadway due to its continued use as a beach access.

“Why are we having a meeting with a developer to negotiate something we’re so sure about?” said George Gerdts, of Henderson Road.

City Planner Peter Namtvedt Best, who spoke on behalf of the city at the meeting, said no deal has been reached. He said that although the city “strongly believes” in its position, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t face a legal challenge – thus the continuing discussions with Holsman.

“Right now all sides lay some sort of claim that is undefined,” Best said. “We received some additional documents (in the private meeting Wednesday) from the purchaser, and are reviewing those now.”

The review will take at least another week, Best said, after which the city will decide how to proceed. Any formal decision would require City Council approval. The bulk of discussion Wednesday was devoted to the history of the road, rather than the specifics of Holsman’s proposal.

The road was built in the 1890s, and once connected to a stop for ferries in the Mosquito Fleet, which shuttled islanders around Puget Sound until the 1930s. The wharf that once occupied the Walker property was then home to a store and post office.

The property eventually gave way to residential use, and has belonged to the Walker family since the 1960s.

Holsman said he plans to knock down the existing house and build a new one, in which he and his wife will live for at least a few years before they resell.

He said he’s already had multiple extensions to work out the deal, and that a resolution is needed by April. Without one, he may abandon his plan.

“If I’m right, and someone else buys the property, it’s possible that they’ll want to remove the public access altogether,” he said.

Whoever the buyer, Holsman said, the dispute isn’t likely to disappear.

“There’s a tangle down there that needs to be solved,” he said. “This is not a case of me asking the city to give up a road they already have. This is a case of me as a private resident trying to clear up a situation where a lot of mistakes have been made in the past.

When the community understands the whole situation, they may feel differently.”

The city originally designated 74 public road ends in the 1990s, though that list has since shrunk considerably due to legal disputes.

Road end disputes are common on the island, the most notable one being at Fletcher Bay, where the city, after several years of legal wrangling, forced private residents to remove a gate that blocked public access. Other disputes have occurred at Olallie Lane and Wing Point; two are ongoing at Port Madison. Resolutions have in the past swung both ways, with some favoring – and others removing – public access.

Best said the city is careful about how it deals with such disputes, since those dealings set precedents.

“I think the way the city is handling this situation in the same way it has handled others,” he said. “We want to find out all the facts before things become confrontational.”

Dwyer, meanwhile, has her doubts.

“I think it’s a bad precedent to establish,” she said, “flirting with a developer using a public right of way.”

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