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Originally published May 17, 2012 at 9:01 PM | Page modified May 17, 2012 at 10:19 PM

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Bellevue light-rail route could put some on wrong side of the tracks

There are more than 50 South Bellevue households whose homes or yards are in the path of the track that will connect Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond starting in 2023. The residents, on or near Bellevue Way Southeast and 112th Avenue Southeast, have been wondering about the future of their homes since voters in 2008 approved the $2.8 billion line.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A red line slashing across the lawn in Arjun Sirohi's backyard shows where Sound Transit might build an elevated light-rail track.

Sirohi and his wife, Neeraj, don't want to sell their house in the quiet Surrey Downs neighborhood, so close to downtown Bellevue that he walks to work and they can walk together to the grocery store and the movies.

But his worst fear is that the transit agency will buy only the eastern side of his property and run a track in front of the modest deck he's reluctant to rebuild because he doesn't know how long it will be his.

"Our friends joke with us, 'If it was in India, the train would be open and we would be selling tea,' " Sirohi said.

Under plans developed last year, the East Link rail line would run along the west side of busy 112th Avenue Southeast, through what are now the yards of Sirohi and at least eight of his neighbors on 111th Place Southeast.

Sound Transit says it won't buy entire properties if it needs only part of them. The City Council, unhappy about that, might act as a go-between and buy those homes instead.

The Sirohis are among more than 50 South Bellevue households whose homes or yards are in the path of the track that will connect Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond starting in 2023.

The residents, on or near Bellevue Way Southeast and 112th Avenue Southeast, have been wondering about the future of their homes since voters in 2008 approved the $2.8 billion line. The uncertainty has only increased as Bellevue and Sound Transit have explored noise-dampening and cost-saving ideas that have increased the number of homes that may be bought out.

Sound Transit, which buys only the portion of properties needed for the rail line, may not be ready to buy land on Sirohi's block before 2014. Officials aren't yet sure what land they will need for the project, because the route hasn't been finalized.

However, acquisition of more than 40 other houses and condos north of Sirohi's house and Surrey Downs Park could begin late this year. That portion of the route has undergone detailed environmental study and isn't likely to be changed, transit officials said.

Still tweaking plan

After two years of fighting over the route between Interstate 90 and downtown Bellevue, the City Council and Sound Transit agree roughly where it will go, but are now considering tweaks that could reduce how much money the city must contribute to a $320 million tunnel through downtown.

Costs could be trimmed by moving parts of the rail line from trenches to the surface. On Bellevue Way that would mean moving the historic Winters House to the east or moving the track and roadway westward into the Enatai neighborhood.

On 112th Avenue, the latest concept would close Fourth Street and extend Eighth Street to the west — smack through Sirohi's house.

Sirohi's next-door neighbor has put up a large sign at Eighth and 112th that proclaims, "No Train on 112th."

Most residents have resigned themselves to a rail line along 112th. Surrey Downs Community Club President Ron Bennett said an initial survey of residents showed "everyone adamantly against" extending Eighth Street because it would allow cars to cut directly through the neighborhood to and from the Interstate 405-Eighth Street interchange.

"If light rail is coming, I can live with it. I certainly would prefer to have them take my house than not take it," said Bennett, whose home is even closer to the planned rail line than Sirohi's.

About 40 homes in the path of the train are condominiums, most of whose owners preferred to move rather than live with a train running along the opposite side of the street.

But that means the condos can't be sold on the real-estate market, said Scott Rodgers, president of the Carriage Place Condominiums Homeowners Association.

"For the last, I'd say five years, no one's been able to sell," Rodgers said. " ... It kind of puts a new meaning on the term condo bondage."

The soonest Sound Transit could possibly buy out those condos is "very late this year," the agency's real-property director, Roger Hansen, said.

Other homeowners along the rail line will have a much longer wait.

The Bellevue City Council has been pressuring Sound Transit to make property purchases as soon as possible and to buy entire properties rather than portions of them.

"I think if you're going to drop a train in somebody's backyard you need to buy their property," said Councilmember Kevin Wallace. He also said property owners abutting the planned track have "a scarlet letter" that makes it impossible for them to sell to anyone other than Sound Transit.

But under the guidelines for federal grants Sound Transit receives, the agency can acquire only the portions of properties needed for transportation purposes, said East Link Deputy Project Director Don Billen.

Sound Transit typically doesn't begin buying property until engineering is 60 percent complete — a milestone the agency expects to reach about the end of 2013.

Bellevue Council option

Fred Butler, deputy president of the Issaquah City Council and chair of the Sound Transit Capital Committee, said it would be premature to say how soon properties might be acquired.

"We're early in the process and we haven't decided which ones of these cost-saving alternatives we're going to carry forward to get the information we need. A lot of folks are talking. We're having a transparent conversation about this," Butler said.

The Bellevue City Council, not happy about the prospect of Sound Transit buying only "slivers" of properties, may step in with its own solution: purchasing entire properties with city dollars and then reselling portions of them to Sound Transit.

The council earlier this month authorized the city manager to study what "public uses" the city might have for those properties south of Surrey Downs Park — including park expansion — and how much it might cost to buy them.

Sirohi is counting on the city to make sure his property isn't split into pieces, with the house on one side and an elevated train on the other.

Even with city help, he worries he won't recoup the life savings he and his wife put into the house where they raised their two children — and that they won't be able to find a home in a nearby neighborhood.

"There is no way anybody can live on this property if the train comes through," he said. "You cannot open this door. Nobody is going to buy this home."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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