Not Your Backyards

Two Families Are Trying to Keep Portions of Volunteer Park for Their Own Private Use

Not Your Backyards

BEHIND THE FENCE Public property.

Two families on Capitol Hill whose houses border Volunteer Park have been using fenced-in parts of the park as their backyards for years. However, after becoming aware of their encroachment, and despite months of recent pressure from the city, they haven't given up the 2,800 square feet of public land.

Seattle Parks and Recreation became aware of 13 residences invading public space—including a hot-tub pavilion and a zip line into the park—last July, according to a records request filed by The Stranger. On January 15 of this year, parks officials informed the residents that they had 30 days to vacate park land. Most of the home­owners complied, records show, removing the zip line and dismantling the hot-tub pavilion. However, two families—Ralph and Lesley Althouse, and Charles and Kristen Wilk—continue to use the park as their private yards, while repeatedly contacting city council member Sally Bagshaw to intervene on their behalf.

"In some cases, we wait until the property is sold before we insist on moving the property line back," says parks department spokesperson Dewey Potter. "But we're talking about thousands of square feet here. That's pretty significant."

But the Althouses argue that giving back park land would pose a security threat to their family. A family-room addition they constructed in 1995 (made with all the required city permits) puts their house within 0.2 feet of park property (and not 20 feet, as they previously thought), and the adjacent park, they note in one e-mail to Bagshaw, runs rife with "loud drunken parties... people openly using IV drugs, throwing knives, and having 'consensual gay sex.'"

The Althouse residence sits on a 10,000-square-foot lot, and the encroachment—their backyard, essentially—takes up an additional 1,941 square feet of public land. When they purchased the home (also in 1995), they were told that a chain-link fence—a fence that still stands today—marked the boundary between their property and the park.

Glenn Amster, the lawyer for both families, argues that the city has recognized the chain-link fence as a boundary for 50 years, so it's partly to blame for the encroachments. Regarding the Althouse property addition, Amster notes, "My clients used architects, engineers, consultants; they submitted plans showing the fence to the city; and they were given permits."

But Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), says, "The city doesn't require a survey for all development proposals," and it doesn't have the resources to investigate the property lines of every construction project. "The idea is to keep the cost low for a simple, single-family proposal. However, that means the onus is on the property owner that any information they give the city... is accurate."

Now the Althouses face a major hurdle: Zoning codes prevent them from building a wall or fence 2.4 inches from their family-room wall, which is where Volunteer Park property begins. The Althouses would need to demolish part of their family room to comply. Seattle land-use rules reserve certain portions of single-family lots for front and backyard space. For backyards, the requirement is "25 feet or 20 percent of lot depth (minimum of 10 feet), whichever is less," according to the DPD website.

There seems to be an impasse. The Althouses and their lawyer have described the situation as "irreconcilable" to Bagshaw, chair of the city council's Parks & Seattle Center Committee.

In March, Bagshaw requested that the parties work with parks department staff and Amster responded, "I'm afraid our clients may not be satisfied with this approach and had hoped to have a discussion that included a grain of equity and common sense."

For their part, the Wilks told parks officials that they would relocate their fence and relinquish 872 square feet of park space, but they hadn't taken action as of press time (neither family would comment). The Althouses are negotiating with the parks department but have made no plans to relinquish the land.

Meanwhile, the parks department has a temporary solution: pay to rent the land. A three-year permit would charge the Althouses $29,646.83 annually. Their home is appraised at $2.1 million, according to King County tax records.

The bottom line, says Potter, is "we can't give away park property. Public sentiment is that park land is sacrosanct. We can't continue to let them use it for their own private purposes." recommended


Comments (11) RSS

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How long 'til they can claim squatter's rights?

Given the similar problems near Seward Park, I really hope the city starts to put effort into researching this sort of thing in the future. It doesn't create a lot of goodwill with residents when the city keeps having to say "well, we know we told you otherwise in the past, but..."
Posted by Sean P. on May 13, 2010 at 9:52 AM · Report this
Anybody who believes a realtor when they are told where the property line lies is a real fool. They are a double fool when they don't have their property surveyed before they make any changes to their house, etc. Volunteer Park is public excuses for being double stupid. And adverse possession does not work on public property.
Posted by tree hugger on May 13, 2010 at 9:40 PM · Report this
You are referring to the doctrine of adverse possession, which does not apply against municipalities. “It is well established that title to land held by a municipality in its government capacity may not be impaired by means of adverse possession,” Finley v. Jordan, 8 Wash.App. 607, 609, 508 P.2d 636, review denied 82 Wash.2d 1006 (1973)
Posted by dtto on May 14, 2010 at 7:26 AM · Report this
Such cry-babies! Tear down that Fence!
Posted by tgradyc on May 18, 2010 at 11:21 AM · Report this
Security threat? If it's that damn dangerous why the hell would they get a house there in the first place? And seriously, a chain link fence ain't that much protection in the first place.
Posted by insert display name here on May 18, 2010 at 2:54 PM · Report this
Ultimately it is the property owners responsibility to make sure the building is within the legal property boundaries with the correct offsets taken into account. Claiming ignorance is no excuse.
Posted by Property on May 18, 2010 at 4:47 PM · Report this
Unregistered User 7
I wonder how many drunk, needle shooting, knife throwing gay-sex having park goers there actually are. One dude doing all of that at the same time would be pretty impressive, though.
Posted by Unregistered User on May 18, 2010 at 9:49 PM · Report this
Make a zoning variance that lets these people put a fence up 2.4 inches from that family room wall and be done with this.
They keep their building, just move the fence, and the city keeps their park.
Posted by Edsel on May 19, 2010 at 8:03 AM · Report this
Public officials have the responsibility to act as stewards of public land preventing the private appropriation of public parks. I wish that the Seattle Parks Department were responsible for Waterway 1 in Laurelhurst. At that historic waterfront park, the adjoining private waterfront property owner has appropriated one-fourth of the park and more than one-third of the waterfront. Yet, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources doesn't appear to have any interest in eliminating the encroachment.
Posted by Kin on May 20, 2010 at 6:11 PM · Report this
Kin, I googled Waterway 1 on Lake Washington ... big-time encroaching going on there. Have you contacted the Department of Natural Resources to find out why it hasn't demanded the encroachments be removed? Could the prime waterfront land be transferred to the Parks Department so it can be opened to the public?
Posted by Randy P. on May 20, 2010 at 7:34 PM · Report this
Maybe public officials feel that it isn't prudent for them to challenge theft of public land by well-connected and powerful individuals. Three cheers for The Stranger in raising an issue that might otherwise be settled by opaque, under-the-table dealings. A free press creates the transparency that encourages public officials to act responsibly.
Posted by Kin on May 20, 2010 at 8:34 PM · Report this

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