Two families along the 1200 block of Federal Avenue East, on Capitol Hill, have lawyered up and are refusing to relinquish 2,813.3 square feet of Volunteer Park property that they're functionally using as fenced back yards. According to a records request filed by The Stranger with the city, last July, the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department became aware of 13 residences encroaching on public space—including a hot tub pavilion and zip line into the park—and on January 15 of this year, residents were informed they had 30 days to vacate park land. The public records request shows that the home owners removed the zip line and dismantled the hot-tub pavilion. But two families—Ralph and Lesley Althouse, and Charles and Kristen Wilk—have refused to comply, records indicate, still using park of the park as private yard space.
Records show that the Althouses argued to the parks department that giving back park land poses a security threat to their family, because an addition they made to their home in 1995 (made with all the required city permits) puts their house within 0.2 feet of the actual property line. Their house sits on a 10,000 square foot lot, and their encroachment—their back yard, essentially—takes up 1,941 square feet of public land. When they purchased their 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.
"In some cases, we wait until the property is sold before we insist on moving the property line back," says parks spokeswoman Dewey Potter. "But we're talking about thousands of square feet, here. That's pretty significant."
The lawyer for both families, Glenn Amster, argued on the phone today that the city has recognized the chain link fence as a boundary for fifty years, so it's partly at fault. "My clients used architects, engineers, consultants, they submitted plans to the city showing the fence to the city, and they were given permits," Amster says.
But Bryan Stevens, spokesman for the Department of Planning Development, says, "The city doesn’t require a survey for all development proposals," and the city doesn't have 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, that information is accurate."
Amster couldn't explain why, when the Althouses met with design experts to build an addition to their house, no one thought of surveying the property boundary. He says that both families are in negotiations with the parks department to resolve the issue, but couldn't specify what an amenable resolution would be. I have calls in to both families to see what they propose.
Meanwhile, the parks department has a temporary solution: pay to rent the land. (Parks needs the money!) A Revocable Use Permit, available for $150 (and good for up to three years) would give the families plenty of time to figure out how to give back the public land they are currently enjoying as private yard space. The permit would charge each family a fee based on the estimated value of the land ($152.74 a square foot) and its area. For the Alhouses, it would be an estimated $29,646.83 fee, annually. For the Wilks, this would equal roughly $13,323.51 in permit fees annually. Their homes are appraised for $2,108,000 and $1,549,000, respectively.
The bottom line, says Potter, is that "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."