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Originally published September 22, 2013 at 7:25 PM | Page modified September 23, 2013 at 6:13 AM

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Church’s worry over light rail draws in president of Latvia

Members of the Latvian Lutheran Evangelical Church near Northgate fear a Sound Transit light-rail alignment might displace their church. On Sunday, the president of Latvia visited the church and added his support to the congregation.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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A Seattle neighborhood skirmish over light rail is suddenly gaining attention half a world away.

Andris Berzins, the president of Latvia, urged Sound Transit on Sunday to avoid a track alignment that might displace a Latvian church near Northgate. Berzins was in Seattle while on an economic-development tour of North America.

Some 300 people are members of the Latvian Lutheran Evangelical Church, just east of the Interstate 5 noise wall. Hundreds more attend cultural events and a Saturday-morning language school.

Sound Transit intends to squeeze its trains between I-5 and the church, not quite a mile north of the future Northgate Station, heading toward Lynnwood in 2023.

Church members fear their building might be condemned under a surface option, which in current form would block the only entrance road and demolish a caretaker’s house. Tracks would sit a few yards from the sanctuary windows. An elevated route takes less land, but overhead trains are noisy.

Latvian émigrés, many of whom had lived under Nazi or Soviet occupation, saw their first Seattle center condemned in 1969 to build Wallingford Playfield. Two years later, church members used government compensation, donations and volunteer labor to build the present church.

“This is not the first, but the second time, to be under danger. It sounds not so well,” Berzins said, strolling the church aisle Sunday with Pastor Daira Cilnis.

Earlier, he mentioned light rail during a 25-minute speech in Latvian to 140 people in the social hall. Berzins said he would discuss the route during a Sunday-night dinner with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, on a variety of mostly economic-development issues.

Monday is the deadline to submit public comment on the line’s draft environmental-impact statement.

The Latvian ambassador to the United States, Andris Razans, said in a letter to Sound Transit dated Friday that “it would be of great loss to the very vibrant and exceptionally warm U.S.-Latvian relations as well, to see that the building might perish because of the extension of the ... Link railway line.”

Razans is traveling with Berzins and in a brief interview emphasized his lack of power to intervene in another nation’s affairs.

The track design is still in an early phase, Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said Friday. “We’ve been working with the church for a long time. This adds more gravity to their concerns. We’ve been looking at design alternatives around the surface option that could be promising.”

How might Link thread the needle?

Gunars Sreibers, a representative of the Latvian community, asks for three things: a replacement road, a noise wall between the church and the trains, and payment to replace the doomed caretaker house. But a new road requires taking property from a neighboring homeowner.

Church leaders say they support light rail.

“We believe from an engineering standpoint, the vibration and noise can be mitigated,” said Sreibers, who was project manager for King County’s Brightwater sewer project.

Latvia is a wet, lowland country of 2 million people, active in Baltic Sea trade since the 13th century. It separated from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has since joined NATO and the European Union.

Berzins told the Seattle group he and other Baltic leaders recently held a productive meeting with President Obama about national security.

He also planned to visit Microsoft and the Baltic studies program at the University of Washington .

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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