A gentleman called the Out There Monthly office the other day to voice concerns about a popular trail that runs from 35th and Havana behind Chase Middle School on the South Hill. He told me that the dirt trail, which he said had been used by dog-walkers, trail-runners, cyclists, and middle school students for years, if not decades, was effectively shut down. According to him a few adjacent homeowners had purchased trail land and were installing a gate to block the trail. He wanted to know; didn’t a prescriptive easement prevent this action from happening?
A prescriptive easement is the legal concept that if a right of way has been in use for an extended period of time, without permission or corrective action, the very nature of it’s continued use allows it to be codified into a legal right of way that can’t be blocked. It’s an interesting concept that sometimes comes into play in regards to public trails, but not in Washington State. I’m not sure anything can be done, outside of negotiating, if someone cuts off access to a trail that has been used for years.
Washington State does have a law helping protect private landowners from liability when the public uses a trail on their property. The homeowners abutting the Chase Middle School trail may also not be aware of the research data showing that immediate proximity to public trails significantly increases property values. I’m not privy to the specific circumstance here, but the homeowners may actually be lowering the resale values of their homes by shutting down the trail.
And trails on private land aren’t the only ones that may not be adequately protected. The Fish Lake Trail, which opened a new segment to much fanfare in May, might end up being re-routed with at grade crossings that require users to traverse a major new high-speed four lane arterial, as a part of WS-DOT’s plan to upgrade the 195-Cheney Spokane Road intersection.
Most people who currently use the Fish Lake Trail would be surprised to know this new trail-altering arterial is very close to becoming a reality. Trails often take years, and decades to create, but then they also need to be defended. One of the best things you can do is join the Inland Northwest Trails Coalition (http://www.inlandnorthwesttrails.org/) and learn about their work to preserve and expand our regional trail system. Don’t take any trail for granted.