Editor’s note: The Key Peninsula News first reported in October 2003 about residents on so-called 144th Street who are not able to use their properties in any way that requires permits. Since then, they’ve continued to search for answers on how they can end the situation, and they feel their elected officials have turned their backs on them while they pay taxes on properties with greatly diminished values. The Key Peninsula News is looking for answers as well, and will present the three sides — the residents’, the county’s and Tacoma Power’s—in a series of articles starting with this June issue.
Lance and Tina Lott moved to the Key Peninsula in 2003 from Minnesota. Attracted by the same features that brings newcomers here — proximity to the water, quiet lifestyle, birds roaming —they settled on more than an acre of land. The home was even Tina’s favorite color: yellow.
“We fell in love with the Key Peninsula,” she said. “It gives you a sense of being away.”
Just a few weeks after their move, they had the first sign of what would later become a fight for their property rights. As they eventually found out, some of their neighbors have held the same fight for years.
The Lotts live off a gravel right-of-way that on many maps is called 144th Street and is nicknamed Pole Line Road, a utility road used by Tacoma Power to service its power line that stretches from Tacoma to the Cushman Dam. For years, the residents used the road to access their homes, develop their property and get their mail. Many of them say they had no idea that, according to Tacoma Power, they were using the road “illegally.”
“We saw an article in the Key Peninsula News (October 2003) and we thought that was weird,” Tina said. The article described a landlocked situation their neighbors found themselves in, and the Lotts asked their realtor to look into it.
“We didn’t think anything of it and went about our married life, and one day came home and there is a gate,” Tina Lott said.
The gate, installed off 118th Street, is one of several on the right-of-way. Tacoma Power spokesperson Chris Gleason said at a neighborhood meeting that the utility needed to protect the area but that it would provide residents and emergency services with access.
It costs the utility between $30,000 and $50,000 to clean up junk cars and other garbage along the road, she said, and “it’s really not reasonable to send crews to clean up the property.”
For many residents, however, the gates are the least of their worries. For several years, Pierce County stopped issuing permits to all property owners who cannot show alternative access to their plats.
Joe Geier learned about the problem nearly two years ago, when he tried to help his son build a home on a portion of his 15 acres. What he found, he said, was a dilemma going back 80 years, after a lawsuit that condemned portions of the properties on 144th for the utility road. Geier believes the lawsuit never took the residents’ right of using the road. He questioned why the county issued permits two or three decades ago and not now. There is no exact count on the number of properties affected, but residents estimate between 50 and 80.
“We’ve asked the county not to issue any more permits because we are liable for the right-of-way,” Gleason told the residents.
According to Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee, the county has never done title reports to guarantee access for issuing a permit, and the parcels are flagged “only when someone complains” and “it comes on the radar screen.” However, a July 2003 letter to Joseph J. Geier written by county Executive John Ladenburg and signed on his behalf by Chief of Staff Lyle Quasim states: “Section 503 of the Uniform Building Code and Chapter 12.03 of the Pierce County Code require that appropriate access be provided in order to obtain a building permit.”
Back in 1971, Pierce County Public Works Director WM. R. Thornton described the situation in a letter to the Board of Commissioners: “Residents were able to purchase land in the area and therefore were able to obtain building permits from the County. There is no way that we know of whereby the County can refuse a building permit to any resident even though, to the best of our knowledge, there is no access to the property” except “via this City Light road.”
When Max and Joann Aikins moved to the area nearly 40 years ago, they said they were told by county officials that 144th was an undeveloped county road, and that it would be developed once more residents populated the area. The Aikins even purchased an additional 5-acre parcel in 1988 in order to have legal access to their home — via 144th. On their “Declaration of Boundary Line Revision,” a map shows their access from the right-of-way, called C.D. Rowley Road, running along Tacoma’s transmission line. The map has the stamp of approval of the boundary revision by the county Planning Department. It is one of several documents and maps that make reference to the road.
“It is a transmission right-of-way, it’s not a road, it will never be a road,” Tacoma Power Superintendent Steve Kline said. “I don’t refute somebody illegally calls it a road…It is our property, I don’t care what the maps say.”
Two to three decades ago, there were discussions between the county and the utility about making the right-of-way a county road. Today, both the county and the utility say that doesn’t appear to be an option, and each side says they’ve tried to cooperate with the other but the other doesn’t.
“The county has washed their hands of it. We don’t see it as Tacoma Power’s responsibility to maintain the right-of-way,” Gleason said at the neighborhood meeting. “We’ve been trying for years to cooperate with the county and they’re just not with it.”
Lee said at a different neighborhood meeting the following month: “It doesn’t look like Tacoma Power is interested in playing ball.”
In the meantime, the two jurisdictions have agreed to share the cost of installing electronic gates, answering the residents’ concerns about safety with manual gates. The jurisdictions also appear to agree on one thing: Residents must find an alternative access, via easements and other ways. The residents are racing against the clock: According to one neighbor, Tacoma Power will only allow them to use the road for access for two years while resients find another way.
Next month: A look through the years at the discussions between the three involved parties, and the impact of the situation on the owners today.