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.
In April 1923, owners of land along a primitive Key Pen Road had their properties condemned by the city of Tacoma, which wanted to use the land for a power transmission project. The court determined “the said proposed condemnation and appropriation to be for a public use.”
Tacoma Power since then built a transmission line stretching from Tacoma to the Cushman Power Dam, a line that also provides power to the Key Peninsula.
The road eventually became known by several names including Pole Line Road and Powerline Road, but the postal addresses designate it as 144th Road KPN. A former resident who grew up on 144th recalled using the road to ride horses, and said she and friends frequented a pet cemetery that existed right off 144th.
The properties had changed hands several times in the last eight decades, and nothing seemed amiss until about 30 or 40 years ago, when residents started having troubles with getting the county to maintain the road. The troubles have compounded in recent years, as landowners whose only access is through that road became unable to get any county permits. In their words, they became landlocked. Residents on the west side of Wright-Bliss Road are not affected, as the county owned a road there before the lawsuit, and therefore the road remained.
Tacoma Power says the residents on the east side of Wright-Bliss have trespassed on private property all this time. Residents, however, believe the lawsuit never intended to take away use of the road.
As residents scramble for answers, they are asking questions like: How can mail be delivered to a road that doesn’t exist? How can the county approve easements off a road that doesn’t have public access? Why do maps show a county road on a road the county said it doesn’t own?
The question of maps has come up frequently in the debate between the property owners, the utility, and the county. Residents have pointed out “C.D. Rowley County Road” showed up on maps dating back decades, stretching not only on the west side of Wright-Bliss but also for portions of the east side. Even county GIS mapping shows an undedicated strip of land stretching east of Wright-Bliss in between the parcels Tacoma Power owns.
A representative for Metzker Co., which has produced some of the maps, said the information comes from sources such as the county assessor, county road departments and similar sources, but never from private information. Some residents have county documents for their private property showing C.D. Rowley Road on the county map, east of Wright-Bliss. One of those residents said, “It’s not our imagination. We were led to believe” that was a legal road. Yet, as county Councilman Terry Lee pointed out, “A map has no legal authority, it’s only an illustration.”
“It is our property, I don’t care what the maps say,” Tacoma Power Superintendent Steve Klein said in an earlier interview. “There is no question there’s been errors on maps.”
Tacoma Power’s Tom Anderson wrote in an email in reply to the KP News’ question about the apparent road right-of-way on maps: “Unfortunately, the county’s GIS mapping is incorrect and that strip of land does not exist other than as an error on the county’s GIS map. Others have made the same argument to us based on the county’s GIS map. We have brought this to the county’s attention and they admit their map is wrong.” A county GIS official told the KP News in August she was not aware of the errors but would look into it.
Some residents said their title reports showed a public road. Several property owners who bought their homes within recent years have, in fact, gone back to their title companies for answers. They learned that their properties show access, and their title companies may pursue legal action. Some believe if successful, the suit would help everyone else.
A Ticor Title Co. agent in Tacoma, who is not servicing the residents in question but who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “Title insurance provides legal access to the property we insure… The legal access is automatically covered.” But, he noted, “sometime legal access is not the same as the one used.”
Residents have appealed for help from Lee, and county officials have since been actively discussing possible solutions with utility representatives. Their approach so far has focused on providing residents with legal access that doesn’t involve using 144th. Many property owners don’t like the idea, and continue to insist 144th should have been a county road, or if not, the county should press Tacoma Power for an easement. They point to discussions dating back to the 1970s when the utility considered turning the road over to the county, in exchange for release of liability and other conditions (see KP News, July 05). They also say they “don’t want a beautiful road” that could costs millions of dollars, they just want a primitive, but legal, road.
Lee said he brought the idea of a lawsuit to county Executive John Ladenburg, a former prosecutor. He said while Ladenburg feels the county may have a shot at winning, Tacoma Power would turn around and assess everyone to bring the road up to county standards. With the county in a $650 million hole for roadway improvements, and many higher priorities, the county doesn’t have the funds to bring the road up to standard either.
“Any legal remedies would come with a price tag citizens will have to pay,” Lee said. “I’m going to try to solve the problem with the least financial impact to the citizens out there.”
The county staff was in the process of determining what private and public roads could be used to provide access, though the work has focused largely on helping only already developed properties.
“The executive (Ladenburg) asked us and Public Works to lay out the options,” said Planning and Land Services Director Chuck Cleeberg. “In the past, when we’ve taken this look, the lack of access on that road was a real barrier.” The two departments were researching parcel by parcel, to see what current roads could be used or where new roads may be built.
In the meantime, the residents are coming up on a deadline. Tacoma Power has been getting ready to install electronic gates on the road, and giving access to police and fire departments and to current residents — provided the residents signed a release form. The latest schedule estimate indicated the gates would go up by early October. Several residents said they would not sign the form — which may leave them without a gate key.
One resident told Lee and Tacoma Power spokesperson Chris Gleason at a meeting: “We just want a stinking road, a place with no gates. Our taxes keep going up and up—what for? Where are our taxes going to? It’s certainly not going to our road access.”