Washington Supreme Court Rules on Ownership of East Lake Sammamish Trail Shorelands

Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt PC

Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt PC

On January 25, the Washington Supreme Court decided that title to a corridor of shorelands along Lake Sammamish vested in the property owners instead of King County. The case involved interpretation of Washington’s Constitution and railroad laws that predate Washington’s statehood.

The case arose from a dispute between King County and landowners along a former rail corridor that King County had converted into the East Lake Sammamish Trail. King County claimed ownership of the disputed corridor through a deed that originated with the federal government’s 1887 grant to the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad of a “right-of-way” to build a railroad over the corridor. The property owners claimed ownership through the state’s subsequent sale of the shorelands to their predecessors-in-interest.

Ownership turned on interpretation of Wash. Const. art. XVII, which provides that the state owns the beds and shorelands of the state’s navigable waters except those “patented by the United States.” The question was whether the railroad right-of-way approved by the federal government under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 was a conveyance patented by the United States.

The Court concluded that the federal government’s right-of-way conveyance was not a patent because the federal government gave the railroad a non-possessory easement, and the term “patent,” as it was understood at the time of statehood, meant a grant of public land to an individual and required conveyance of fee title (i.e., full possessory interest). Thus, the Court narrowly construed the constitution’s exception for lands subject to pre-statehood federal patents, and determined that the exception only applied to situations where the federal government conveys fee title to land beneath navigable waters.

The Court found that historical context supported its findings, and it explained that a more expansive reading of exceptions for federal patents would compel Washington to lose miles of shorelands and face numerous lawsuits from private landowners who paid for shorelands they never received. The landowners would be forced to tear down docks, boat lifts, decks, and other structures that had been built on shorelands.

The case is King County v. Abernathy et al., __ Wn.2d ___ (2024).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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