Politics & Government

County prepares to complete Foothills Trail by condemning last four properties

The Pierce County Council has authorized starting the process of condemning the last four properties needed to complete the Foothills Trail in East Pierce County, more than a quarter-century after the walking and biking trail’s inception.

Despite objections from two property owners, County Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to begin the year-long condemnation process. Some on the council called it a necessary last resort because negotiations with two of the four homeowners are at an impasse.

The county wants to acquire a half-mile strip of right-of-way near the eastern edge of South Prairie toward Buckley, most of it running 20 feet wide. It’s the last missing link for completing the trail.

Since at least 1995, the county has been negotiating with property owner Doug Dickson. The county wants to buy 18,080 square feet of his property and acquire an easement for another 16,460 square feet.

Dickson accused the county Tuesday of negotiating unfairly.

“We talk about fair value and you come and you tell me that we start with a low number from the county,” said Dickson, pounding on the podium. “You don’t give me a fair value to start out with. You don’t even attempt to do that.”

Jeff Wong, the county’s right of way section supervisor, said the county starts negotiating at fair market value determined by two independent appraisers.

But Wong said Dickson and the county remained far apart in negotiations.

Dickson wanted about $400,000 for a strip of his property, Wong said. His entire property is assessed at $444,000.

Joseph Vines, who has a mobile home on his property, told the council he and the other property owners are the ones most affected by the trail.

“As landlords we are the ones most impacted by the trail and the amount of people that use it,” Vines said. “We live where we live and have settled where we live because we enjoy the country setting.”

The total land sought by the county is nearly one acre. Under condemnation, a judge will ultimately establish the price for the properties, unless the homeowners settle before then. None of their homes would be displaced by the acquisition.

The paved Foothills Trail covers 15 miles from Puyallup to South Prairie. The 12-foot-wide trail also includes about a two-mile stretch in Buckley and segments east of South Prairie and in Wilkeson. When completed, the trail will cover at least 19 miles.

In 2010, the County Council authorized condemnation proceedings on another crucial missing link through Dwight Partin’s RV park in South Prairie. Negotiations carried on under that cloud. Last November, Partin sold the strip of land — 1.36 acres — through his RV park for $1.05 million.

The four remaining parcels and Partin’s property form a nearly milelong stretch of the trail still to be completed.

Council Chairman Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said county officials at his request more than a year ago renewed their attempts at reaching settlements. He said “we have done everything we can,” but the four properties remain unresolved.

He said the county may not be able to reach agreements on at least two of the four last properties.

“I’ve seen the numbers,” Roach said. “I’ve seen how far away we are.”

Roach also said the county is under a time crunch to acquire the remaining parcels so it can be eligible to receive a $2.75 million state grant next year that would fund half of the $5.5 million needed to finish the trail.

While the grant isn’t a sure thing, parks and recreation director Tony Tipton was optimistic about the county’s chances, calling its application “very viable.”

Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, cited the value of the trail for recreation and transportation. She said county staff members “although they’re not perfect, have done their very best to settle these four cases.”

She said she’s convinced the landowners were offered fair compensation.

“Condemnation should always be a last resort,” McDonald said.

Trail supporters urged the council to move on with condemnation proceedings to finish the trail.

Buckley Mayor Pat Johnson said said she’s optimistic the completed trail will bring new businesses to Buckley, as it already has to Orting.

“For us, it will hopefully be part of our economic survival,” Johnson said.

She said Buckley is working with the City of Enumclaw and King and Pierce counties to add a pedestrian bridge across the White River to connect with the Foothills Trail in Enumclaw.

King County already owns the right of way to continue the trail on to the Maple Valley area.

“The section that we are looking at completing now will be part of a much larger picture in the future,” Johnson said.

Buzz Grant, president of the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition, said there were many people who “started out with this concept of this trail back in the ‘80s and they’re not with us anymore.”

“We’re dying to get it done, I guess,” Grant said. “It’s time for the courts to sort this thing out.”