City Hall

Understanding the Burke-Gilman Trail's Legal Battle

How 1.4 miles became a neverending saga for the city.

By Hayat Norimine February 7, 2018

Burke gilman trail seattle city qum0es

City officials and bike advocates last week won a big legal battle with a green light to close the Burke-Gilman Trail's "missing link" in Ballard—a 1.4-mile stretch to connect the existing, 20-mile trail running from Golden Gardens Park to the Sammamish River Trail in Bothell.

The Seattle hearing examiner ruled that the city can move forward with the project, finding that the SEPA final environmental impact statement was enough to address appellants' concerns. "At least we can move forward to complete the missing link of the Burke-Gilman Trail," council member Mike O'Brien, a longtime advocate, said in a statement last week. "I'm excited to finally see this project through to fruition with an alignment that makes sense for pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, and trucks." 

It's been years since this whole legal battle began, so here's a refresher on what it means and what's to come: 

How long have people been fighting this? Decades. The project first began in 1996 when the Ballard Terminal Railroad signed a 30-year lease that allowed the city to use its tracks. But groups have been fighting efforts even before then

Why: Opponents argue that the location of the trail—on Shilshole Avenue Northwest along an industrial corridor—is both a safety hazard due to truck traffic and a detriment to their businesses located there. Instead of using Shilshole, some opponents like the Cascade Cycle Track wanted a separated bike lane on Leary and Market. A group of business representatives called the Ballard Coalition appealed the city's final environmental impact statement in June. 

The part that's been so controversial is a 1.4-mile segment of Shilshole Avenue Northwest, between 17th Avenue Northwest and Vernon Place Northwest. 

Here's what the legal battle looked like in the past 10 years. Appeals have been successful three times before. Most significantly, the hearing examiner back in 2012 ruled that the city needs to conduct an environmental impact statement.  

A far-too-detailed step by step:

  • In November 2008, the city filed Determinations of Non-Significance (DNS)—meaning, the city tried to make the case that it didn't need an environmental impact statement. It was appealed to the hearing examiner and then the King County Superior Court, which in June 2010 sided with the appellant. The judge ruled that the city needs the DNS that addressed the segment of Shilshole Avenue Northwest. 
  • In February 2011, SDOT issued a second, new and improved DNS. That one also got appealed, all the way up to the King County Superior Court again. And again, in March 2012, the court sent back the city's DNS.
  • SDOT issued a third DNS in April 2012. And this time, the hearing examiner ordered the city to prepare an environmental impact statement (due to the traffic hazards)—a big blow to the city that delayed the project for another five years. 

What about that press conference announcing a compromise? “After years of disagreement, we have a path forward to finally complete the ‘missing link’ of the Burke-Gilman Trail,” said then-Mayor Ed Murray. He held a press conference in February 2017, before the final EIS came out, announcing that trail supporters and opponents have agreed to a framework that would please opponents from business and labor—an alternative trail that runs along Market Street between the Ballard Locks and 24th Avenue Northwest, then turn on Shilshole. The city would improve the existing trail east of the Ballard Bridge, Murray said.  

It didn't appease everyone. A few months later, the Seattle Department of Transportation issued a final environmental impact statement in May 2017. Opponents who call themselves the Ballard Coalition still appealed the final EIS in June, bringing the proposal back into litigation and delaying the project again. 

The ruling last week: The hearing examiner ruled in favor of the city and SDOT. Deputy hearing examiner Ryan Vancil wrote that while "members of the Ballard Coalition hold reasonable concerns regarding the proposal, and its impacts on their businesses," the examiner only determines whether the city's environmental review adequately addresses state Environmental Policy Act standards. And it did, according to the ruling. 

So is the fight over now? Not quite. The coalition can still file a motion to reconsider within 21 days of the decision. That would still leave the project delayed, at least until the King County Superior Court's decision.

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