It's the end of the road for the road-ends group
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:00 PM
"Girdled by shorelines lined with private homes, it's easy to feel landlocked, even on an island.But thanks to the perseverance of the city's Road Ends Committee - which for nearly a decade has worked to make waterfront areas visible and accessible to to the public - the chance to glimpse orcas in Agate Passage, a sunset off Pleasant Beach, or waves crashing at Rolling Bay is there for those lacking the requisite real estate.The priority is to let people know where public access points are for the water, said committee member Roger van Gelder. The group's eight-year review of 71 local road ends - public rights-of-way that end at the sound - is drawing to a close, with its three final recommendations made to the city council last month. Since 1992, the council has approved almost all of the committee's recommendations. These have ranged from the installation of signs and clearing away junk and brambles, to more elaborate improvements for prime locations, like trails, landscaping, and benches where walkers can rest and gaze at cruising ferries. A few were rejected as unsuitable for access or use.Funding for the project came from a state grant to cover the cost of surveying sites, supplemented by city funds to help the department of public works implement the recommendations. But most of the man hours came from the committee itself, said Point Monroe resident Bob Campbell, who has served on the group since its inception.When we each started this, we thought we would be at it a year or so, Campbell said. Nobody thought we would be doing it for this long, but it seemed important to stick to it to declare the importance of the public right of ways for the future.The impetus behind the project came in the mid 1980s, when locals began posing questions about the public use of road ends to Chuck Field, then director of the Bainbridge park system. Field enlisted college student Michael Grimm, who identified 56 potential road end sites over the summer of 1986 and ranked them in categories based on their recreational value.Grimm presented his findings to north-end county commissioner John Horsley, who in 1988 established a committee of 10 citizens to draft a proposed county ordinance on road-end use.But in 1990, when the island voted for self-rule, that group contacted new south-end councilman Andy Maron, who authored a resolution establishing a new city committee in 1992. Now, 12 years after the original group's inception, four veteran members remain - Campbell, Bitsy Ostenson, Don Fisher and Vince Larson.Working together and meeting every couple of weeks, we've become like a family, Campbell said. We've been a good team.Comprised of a civil engineer and surveyor, a landscape architect, a former manager of the Bloedel Reserve, community activists, and two lawyers, the committee has adapted well to the road ends work, including several lawsuits.Residents adjacent to what the committee considers road ends on Wing Point Way - which provide high-bank views of Seattle - have contended in two separate suits that the sites do not offer public access. Other property owners - refusing to remove a chain-link fence from a contested road end at Fletcher Landing - are embroiled in a litigation with the city.Some residents near road ends claimed that opening the areas to increased public use would create traffic problems and attract loiterers, but thus far, those problems haven't materialized, Campbell said.There's great anxiety on the part of the adjacent property owners about hordes of people and kids with boom boxes and beer bottles making chaos in the community, he said. I think we've found that really doesn't happen.But to address such community concerns, the committee established 14 clusters, or subcommittees, which held public meetings with area residents.Many initial fears dissipated once nearby homeowners saw the completed projects, van Gelder said.On the places where we have put in signs or improvements...we've had cases where people come back and say, 'I had concerns ahead of time, but it's actually much better now,' he said. The neighbors have generally been very happy.Of the 71 road ends identified by the committee, not all will see improvements, but the usable sites - about 80 percent - will eventually see signs marking trails and designating public shoreline access, committee member Fisher said. Currently, about one-third of island road ends have signs, and the committee clusters will continue to meet with local communities, the public works department and individuals who help make improvements.Steve Gardiner, a Boy Scout from Bainbridge troop 1565, is working on improvements to an Agate Point road end for his Eagle Scout badge.Another scout, Russell Everett, earned his Eagle last year working on the end of Wharf Street at Pleasant Beach.Initially cluttered with trailers, a pickup truck, brambles and yard clippings, under Everett's labor the site was transformed into a pocket park with a bench, native plants, and a gravel path leading to the waterfront. In Washington state, there's not a lot of public tidelands. It was all sold, Everett said. So as much shoreline access should be provided to the public whenever possible. Otherwise, we just can't get to the beach.Although tidelands are still public in many other states, around the turn of the century, Washington sold shoreline areas to oystermen in the Shelton area, opening the door to a land-grab that eventually placed 60 percent of the state's tidelands in private hands.Yet if islanders can access tidelands via road ends, it is possible that they could then legally stroll up and down these private areas, Campbell maintains.Although that assertion is disputed, Ralph Johnson, a former law professor at the University of Washington, has claimed that the Public Trust Doctrine gives citizens the right to traverse the state's water and the land over which it flows, said Campbell, who helped draft the Bainbridge Shoreline Management Master Program.Much of the impetus behind the work of the road ends committee, Campbell added, comes from the state's 1971 Shoreline Management Act, which encourages communities to increase public access to shorelines.As the island grows in population, it seems that most everyone does not have ready access (to these areas), he said. I think we are obligated to help provide access, so they can enjoy the views and the pleasures of the water.The final recommendations of the road ends committee propose a shore access and hiker sign above a trail that leads to the water at Rolling Bay. Another shoreline access sign would mark off a right of way at the Point Monroe lagoon, which committee members say could be used as a boat launch for small craft.It has been a good project, said Ostenson, committee chair. It was a lot of time, thousands of hours.But the work should make neighborhoods better places to live. Hopefully, it will just be a sort of gentle, amiable access, she said, that is a valuable community resource."