Editor’s note: This is an installment in a series of articles taking a look at the landlocked situation of the residents who live off 144th Street.
Max and JoAnn Aikins did what many people do when they buy a house—sinking savings, borrowed funds, or in their case, pensions, into it. Max, who used to build FHA houses, knew his way around permits. There was one thing about their property that wasn’t ideal, but they were willing to deal with it for a time.
“When we bought out here, we were told (our road) was a county road and when there was enough population, it would be developed,” he says. “We were willing to build and sit it out.”
That was in 1969. The road, known on maps as 144th and in many documents as Pole Line Road, is a utility right-of-way used by Tacoma Power. It has long been used by residents for access—illegally, according to the utility. Today, residents whose only access to their property is through this road are unable to do any work that requires county permits.
“I’m a little upset because we were told it(road development) would happen,” Joann Aikins says. “Everything we had, we poured into it (our house). Our home is not worth the value we put into it.”
The Aikinses say all the documents they have seemed to indicate 144th was a legal road, and they even purchased additional land to have legal access to their home off 144th (see previous story, June 2005). The couple is among several dozen property owners who are unable to remodel, expand, build and in some cases repair their homes.
“There are so many families affected by this, how can they (county officials) turn their back on us?” says Doug Sherman, who obtained a permit to build his home in 1993, but after it lapsed was not able to renew it. He no longer can develop an adjacent property he originally bought with the intent to develop later. “A lot of people who moved here, myself included, were not made aware of this.”
Harv Ennis says he was aware that there was an easement on the road when he purchased the property in 1978 but didn’t see a red flag until four or five years ago, when he received a significant reduction in taxes. “They said there is no more building permits and the county reduced the taxes,” he says. “That was the first official word.”
A look back
A lawsuit in 1923 condemned portions of private properties alongside the road in order to develop the power line that stretches from Tacoma to the Cushman Dam. Since then, citizens continued to buy and sell land and homes that used the road as the only access; a school bus picked up children along the road until the utility asked the school district to discontinue the practice in 1976; and the residents petitioned the county multiple times, and sued it at least once in the 1970s, to try to make it maintain the road.
Letters between Pierce County and City of Tacoma’s Department of Public Utilities and internal memos dated between 1969 and 1973 indicate ongoing discussions between the two entities about the possibility of giving the county a right-of-way on 144th for building a road.
June 5, 1969; from Light Division Superintendent J.D. Cockrell to County Engineer William Thornton: “Light Division engineers have studied the matter to determine the portion of the transmission line right of way which might be available for use by the County as part of the County Road right of way…we are forwarding one set of prints…showing in green the proposed easement.”
June 7, 1973; from Director of Utilities A.J. Benedetti to Thornton, by now a Public Works director: “The Light Division has indicated a willingness to pay all costs to reconstruct (three timber bridges) to minimum county standards, and to furnish right-of-way from its existing transmission line properties if Pierce County will assume and pay all other costs of construction and maintenance and agrees to hold the city harmless for any liability caused by or arising out of construction, maintenance and use of the roadway and bridges.”
By 1975, Thornton wrote to a landowner that “City Light has not made a proposal to Pierce County that Pierce County is willing to accept.”
County easement off the table
The county had considered building a new road north of the transmission road, but the efforts did not succeed because “the land owners in the area wanted large sums of money for those rights of way,” Thornton told the county Board of Commissioners in 1971, and recommended that the county not take over the existing road nor grade or surface it. However, in 1973 the county purchased a 60-foot-wide easement for a public road from at least one resident.
When the discussions stalled three decades ago, it appeared one of the reasons was the county’s unwillingness to pay the costs to bring the road to county standards. Last year, Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee expressed a similar sentiment, saying the county did not even have money to spend on roads with much bigger traffic.
But Tacoma Power Superintendent Steve Klein says he’s not sure the easement option “even existed.” “I don’t know that it ever had any momentum,” he says.
In the last few months, Lee and other county officials have been discussing possible solutions with Tacoma Power—ones that don’t involve using 144th. “I think the people involved in (discussions) are the ones who can solve the problem,” he says. “The good news is the county is committed to solving this and I didn’t get that sense before.”
Some residents are not so sure. Tacoma Power plans to install electronic gates along the road in the near future, and there is likely to be a catch: Only residents who will sign a release of liability will get access, and even if they do, they will still not be able to get permits. Some residents told the KP News they are not willing to sign anything giving away the rights they feel they had when they purchased their homes. There are other problems too: Not all neighbors are cooperating, and have created several groups that are taking different approaches.
“We are all just kind of stuck,” says Tina Lott. “We are caught in a loophole, and we feel we’re being strong-armed by Tacoma Power.”
Next month: The question of maps – and why some landowners believe 144th was a county road; also a look at what’s on the discussion table.