Wednesday, June 29, 2011
City ‘reassesses’ road-end blockage policy
By Bryan Tagas
As a result of a unanimous action of the Seattle City Council earlier this month, waterfront property owners who block access to public right of ways will now have to pay more—significantly more—for the privilege. The City’s new stance has immediate implications for the two Madison Park property owners whose landscaping completely blocks access to the public waterfront at the E. Mercer Street road end. The new fee schedule is retroactive to January 1, though it will be three more years before full implementation is phased in.
As we reported on this blog and in a front-page story in the Madison Park Times earlier this year, our neighborhood’s sixth public road end has been unusable by the public for many decades. The 120-feet-wide property is located south of the Seattle Tennis Club in an area of 39th Avenue E. known to locals as “Devil’s Dip.” Though this prime lakeside real estate belongs to the City and is under the jurisdiction of its Department of Transportation, you’d never know it from looking. Conifers and hedges block access to the shoreline and almost totally obscure the view of the Lake. This situation may change, however, if the abutting property owners decide that the cost of blocking public access is now too steep. It appears that they will ultimately have to pay at least two times as much for annual permit fees as they have been paying.
But before we get into the details of the City’s new policy and its potential for opening up the E. Mercer Street road end to public use, let’s revisit how this particular piece of Madison Park waterfront ended up as a private reserve. Since our original story was posted, several longtime residents have come forward with identical—though at this late date, unverifiable—stories about how the street was effectively “vacated” by the abutting property owners; in particular, the owner of the property to the north of the road end, Jacquetta Blanchett Freeman. According to local lore, Ms. Freeman, in order to discourage use by the madding crowd, installed a water-sprinkler system on the public right of way. Whenever she saw someone on the road end she would come out to verify if it was one of her friends or their children; and if not, the sprinklers would suddenly spring to life. Over the years, Ms. Freeman successfully aborted the picnics, sunbathing activities, and assignations of many unsuspecting visitors to this public site. Eventually, strategic landscaping did the rest—and the public nature of the northern side of the road end became lost to history.
Or so the story goes. According to one of our sources, there was also a concrete stairway from 39th Avenue E. that onetime provided access to the public waterfront. That stairway was apparently removed at or before the time Ms. Freeman (or perhaps the previous property owner) convinced the City to allow the construction of a double-wide garage in the middle that public space. That garage is still there.
The property owner just to the south of the road end, meanwhile, planted a hedge of Portuguese Laurel across the southern third of the public space and then created a lovely side yard for himself by extending the hedge straight to the waterline, paralleling his own property.
As we reported, the current owners of these properties did not originate the encroachments but are simply the beneficiaries of a City policy that allows each of them to keep the benefits of excluding the public from the site by paying annual fees of $35,100 and $21,800, respectively. What our investigation uncovered was the fact that for the entire ten-year period during which the fees have been charged, the City never updated the assessment of area property values upon which its fees were based. By our estimate, the average assessment by the King County Assessor in 2010 was $467 per square foot for the close-by properties along 39th Avenue E. In determining the encroachment fees, the City has been using $90 per square foot, the assessment it had originally arrived at in 2000.
This failure to keep pace with market values is what the City Council is attempting to correct with its newly passed ordinance. The original ordinance failed to allow for the use of King County Assessor data when determining fees, and the City had been remiss in never sending its own assessor to the property to re-evaluate the site based on current market conditions.
The new ordinance corrects this oversight by requiring that the land value of the encroached-upon space be based on “the abutting parcel’s current land value per square foot as determined by the King County Assessor.” This is a big change. The 2011 assessed value for the abutting property to the south of the road end is $512.71 per square foot. This would value the 4,800 sq. ft. of the enclosed public property on that side of the road end at $2,461,017. That’s 5.7 times the value the City assessor had placed on the property and equates to an annual fee increase from $21,600 to about $123,000, all other factors remaining equal.
The abutting property to the north, meanwhile, is assessed at $177.61 per sq. ft., 1.97 times the value the City assessor had previously placed on the property. This values the enclosed public property there at $1,385,358, which could mean an annual fee increase from $35,100 to about $69,000. However, because the area encroached upon extends beyond the center line of the public space, part of the 7,800 sq. ft. that the northern property owner has enclosed may be subject to the higher rate paid by the southern property owner. The ordinance appears to require this: “If the use area extends beyond the centerline of the right-of-way or abuts multiple parcels, the permit fee shall be calculated for each portion of the use area according to the current value of the abutting parcels.”
In any event, the new fees, though retroactive, will not be assessed in full this year. According to Brian de Place, the City’s Manager for Right-of-Way Management/Street Use, the intention of the ordinance is to “soften the effect of the increase.” So the new fees will be phased in over the next four years, 25% of the total increase to be tacked on each year through 2014.
It has taken the Council about six months to go from drafting to passing the final ordinance, but the impact of this action could have the consequence—unintended or otherwise—of ultimately making the private use of this public space just too expensive for one or more of the abutting property owners to want to pay for.
Time will tell.