After speaking with me on the issue of homeowners using Volunteer Park as their private back yards on Wednesday, Donald Harris, spokesman for Seattle Parks and Recreation, told Capitol Hill Seattle blog that I'd misinterpreted the situation: "It's not a legal situation at this time. These families got a lawyer, I think, to represent their needs, not to battle," Harris said.
Harris depicts the encroachments as a non-issue (or non-battle) that is practically resolved. In his mind, maybe it is. But emails retained through a public records request with the city show that the Althouses and their lawyer have routinely contacted City Council Member Sally Bagshaw—council chair of the Parks and Seattle Center committee—to intervene on their behalf, saying the situation with the parks department may be "irreconcilable."
To recap: In January, the parks department informed 13 families that their backyards encroached onto over 11,000 square feet of park land (assessed value over $1.3 million in value). All but one family—the Althouses—have relinquished (or are relinquishing) parks land. The Althouses continue to use 1,941 square feet of public space as their backyard.
Between January and April of this year, the Althouses and their lawyer, Glenn Amster, have contacted Bagshaw's office at least eight times to demand that Bagshaw intervene with the parks department on their behalf. A 1995 addition to the Althouse's home puts the back wall of their house 0.2 feet from where their property ends and Volunteer Park begins (not 20 feet away, as they previously thought). Meanwhile, Seattle land use code dictates that certain portions of single-family lots be reserved for front and back yard space. For backyards, the requirement is "25 feet, or 20 percent of lot depth (minimum of 10 feet) whichever is less," according to the Department of Planning Development. This seems to indicate that in order to fully comply with the parks request and DPD zoning regulations, the Althouses would need to tear down their 15-year-old addition.
Which is why they've lawyered up and petitioned Bagshaw for help: "I'm afraid meeting with [parks staff] only reinforced my sense that the Council will have to get involved if we are to come to some sort of rational conclusion here," writes Amster in one email.
More exchanges after the jump.
On January 20, Amster writes in another email to Bagshaw: "...I think it would be useful to talk amongst ourselves about potential solutions before the situation becomes irreconcilable."
After a March 11 response from Bagshaw's office, in which Bagshaw requests the Althouses work with parks staff on the issue, Amster responds, "I'm afraid our clients may not be satisfied with this approach and had hoped to have a discussion that included a grain of equity and common sense."
And on March 12, Althouse writes to Bagshaw: "I was disappointed to hear... you requested we should work with Parks and Recreation staff 'to work out an amenable solution with the City.' We have already done this... they said many times they 'were just doing their job' and had no authority to do anything apart from enforce us moving our 'encroachments' within 30 days."
I'm not sure what solution the family and their lawyer think is equitable—they've declined to comment—but these emails seem to indicate they are unwilling to relinquish the public land they currently use as their private back yard, as each of their neighbors did. Harris says that most of the time, when the parks department notifies residents of encroachments, "they're horrified. They had no idea and they're very willing to comply." By contrast, the Althouses got ready for battle. They lawyered up.