King County bought the abandoned rail line in 1998 for $2.9 million from the Cascade Land Conservancy, which had acquired the right-of-way and fought two federal court appeals to preserve it as a future trail. The County intended to add the link to its growing system of non-motorized trails, acting under the Federal Rails to Trails Act that allows railroads to transfer unneeded rights-of-way to be used as trails. County officials announced plans to open an interim gravel trail by 1999 but they proved overly optimistic.
Owners of some of the expensive lakefront homes along the seven-mile-long middle portion of the proposed trail objected vociferously to the County's plans. They claimed that opening the right-of-way to public trail-use would violate their privacy and bring crime to the area. Opponents filed more than 20 lawsuits challenging the trail. Some homeowners also built fences, dug ditches, and planted flowerbeds on the right-of-way to obstruct the planned trail.
The City of Sammamish granted a permit for the trail in 2002 but opponents appealed. They also brought a federal lawsuit challenging the conversion of the rail right-of-way to a public trail. The litigation finally ended in 2005 when the Cascade Land Conservancy and another pro-trail group, Friends of the East Lake Sammamish Trail, prevailed in the federal lawsuit and opponents did not appeal the final permits.
The County, which in 2004 had been able to open short sections of the gravel trail at either end, in Redmond and Issaquah, began constructing the crucial central section along the Lake Sammamish shore in the summer of 2005. The $1.6 million gravel path is an "interim trail" that the County eventually intends to pave with asphalt. The completed interim trail was supposed to open in January 2006, but heavy rain pushed back the long-delayed opening one more time.
Open at Last
By March the trail was in use. The official opening ceremony was held on Tuesday, March 21, 2006, with County Executive Ron Sims, Sammamish Mayor Michele Petitti, and other officials and trail advocates on hand. Earlier, Sims had said of the trail, "This is a treasure ... . Years from now, no one will remember the fight." Homeowners who had opposed the trail continued to worry about its consequences, but also planned to use the trail themselves.
With the opening, a non-motorized trail stretched all the way from Issaquah to Ballard, with only a few minor gaps, along the East Lake Sammamish, Sammamish River, and Burke-Gilman trails. And that nearly 40-mile stretch was only a portion of the King County Park System's regional trail network, which totaled more than 175 miles of recreational trail.