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Monday, February 18, 2013 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.
Lake Burien: the public lake you can’t use
By Erik Lacitis
Seattle Times staff reporter
There is one public spot where you can get a pretty good view of the lake hidden in the middle of Burien. The 44-acre lake is a serene oasis on the edge of the old town center.
On a recent afternoon, 70-year-old Lee Moyer is standing at that one lonely spot, where 12th Avenue Southwest dead-ends onto Southwest 156th Street.
He’s lived in the area for 45 years. A retired mechanical engineer who later ran a canoe and kayak business, Moyer is one of those community activists who asks uncomfortable questions of officials.
He stands right by a chain-link fence with a “NO TRESPASSING” sign that stops him from walking to the shore and getting an unimpeded view.
“This is a public resource, and the public is locked out,” Moyer says. “It’s a private playground for the privileged few. What bothers me is this constant, aggressive effort to make it a permanent ban.”
Lake Burien is owned by the state, but because it is completely surrounded by private property — mostly homes whose owners quite enjoy their placid urban haven that is punctuated by the occasional bald eagle — the public has zero access to it.
Because those homes block the view, from the ground level, you might never know the lake even exists in this city of 48,000.
Over the years, there have been suggestions that there be public access to the lake.
But to ward off any such attempts, those property owners have flooded the council with comments and hired an environmental consulting firm that concluded public access would “entail significant risk of degradation,” as well as a law firm that wrote the City Council that such a move was “ill-advised.”
The owners want to make sure the public physically stays out in case any land ever is made available for that four-letter word ... a park.
Even a tiny park that’d cover at most four home lots.
The only kind of public access the owners of property around the lake want is “visual access,” meaning all the public can do is look.
The deepest part of the lake is 29 feet and its mean depth is 13 feet.
As one owner wrote the council, physical access “will irreversibly damage this lake” as “thousands of people” and their pets bring with them everything from “invasive weeds that choke off the waterway” to “poop.”
So, fecalizing masses, stay out.
In 2009, in the B-Town Blog that covers Burien, real-estate broker Robbie Howell, who lives on the lake with her husband, Robert, explained how she perceived Lake Burien:
“ ... the public has no right to use it unless invited to use it by a property owner. Over the years the people on Lake Burien have been generous to invite their children’s friends to swim with them ...
“It is like anything else in life. Some kids get to own a big screen TV while others do not. Some children get to cruise the sound in their parent’s boat and others do not. Some people own houses and others live in apartments. It may be hard, but that is a fact of life.”
Certainly, living along Lake Burien is great for home values.
One house is for sale at $1.25 million, a flier for it showing four beach chairs lined up in front of a private dock.
Another is offered at $819,000, its features including “no public access. Just 92 homes have rights on the lake.”
Lake Burien is one of a handful of lakes in King County to which outsiders have no access.
The essentially privatized lakes are Lake Leota, Lake Joy, Pipe Lake, Lake Lucerne, Lake Marcel and Ames Lake. With the latter two lakes, the property owners also lay claim to the lake beds, and that is how the state’s Department of Natural Resources describes them.
The state says it doesn’t have a count of how many public lakes in Washington have no public access.
If you’re driving on the Northeast Redmond-Fall City Road on a summer day, nearby is what the Ames Lake Community Club describes as “80 acres of some of the cleanest fresh water around.”
But on its Facebook page, the club posts a photo of a worn, historic sign that says, “PRIVATE BEACH ... Trespassers will be prosecuted!”
One member’s comment: “Great message. Short and to the point.”
Emotions heat up quickly when property owners think their lake might be opened up to the public.
Just ask Brian Bennett, Burien’s mayor.
The city has a strong-manager, weak-mayor form of government.
Bennett is 45, a corporate attorney who grew up in Burien. He’s married, with two young daughters.
Back in 2010, as a newly elected City Council member, he made a suggestion about public access to the lake.
He says, “My idea was a pocket park, fenced off, with limited secure access so you couldn’t get into it at night, no boat launch, just some nice little lawn so people could walk up to it, maybe a bench.”
“There wasn’t a lot of support for that in the council,” he says. “There are a lot of vocal and influential people that carry a lot of weight who live around the lake.”
Bennett had made his suggestion right around the time the Ruth Dykeman Children’s Center that’s by the lake had four lots at its southern edge rezoned so they could be sold for residences and help the center’s finances.
That rezoning also meant that the city could buy the lots for a small park.
It was an idea also promoted by Lee Moyer.
He put out a flier, and was featured in the B-Town Blog in a story about such a park.
The reaction was immediate.
Don Warren, a technology consultant and then-president of the Lake Burien Shore Club, wrote about Moyer, “ ... facts are not necessarily of much interest in his personal agenda.”
Then it seemed the issue of a public park became moot, when in late 2010 the Dykeman Center became part of Navos Mental Health Solutions and it decided not to sell the parcels, saying it didn’t want a park right next to where it was treating children.
But the property owners along Lake Burien’s shore want to make sure nothing like that can ever again be considered.
They have been lobbying the city to include wording along these lines in an updated comprehensive plan: “Physical public access is prohibited to protect water quality ... ”
Says Lee Moyer about going up against such forces, “They’ve got incredible power. It’s not a matter of right or wrong. It’s a matter of might.”
A year and a half ago, Mayor Bennett bought a home on the lake because his wife loved the setting.
These days he prefers not to publicly go into detail about the reaction to that park-on-the-lake proposal.
Says Bennett, “It’s a pretty sensitive issue.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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