May 24th, 2012 By Martin Cizmar | News |

Oswego Lake Access Issue Heads to Federal Court

Lawsuit says the city has a responsibility to “protect and preserve the public’s right of access to and use of the Lake.”

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A federal judge may decide if Oswego Lake is open to the public.

A lawsuit filed this morning in U.S. District Court in Portland seeks to force Lake Oswego, Oregon’s wealthiest city, to open its namesake lake for public access. (You can read the suit here.)

The lake was declared open to the public by the state attorney general way back in 1959, but it's been dealt with as if it belongs to private country club, the Lake Oswego Corp., run by homeowners along the shore who pay annual dues.

Though technically public, the lake is controlled by a complex system of easements operated by the corporation, which has an outsized voice in influencing city government.

In March, Willamette Week demonstrated that the lake could be legally accessed from a public park on its shore.

After that, the city of Lake Oswego, under pressure from the Corporation, responded in April by passing an extraordinary resolution banning the public from using public stairs in a public park to access a public lake.

The city claims using the stairs is somehow dangerous.

Last week, the city’s mayor, Jack Hoffman, announced that the council was considering selling its lakeside parkland to the  corporation. This would not benefit the majority of citizens, obviously, but might wash the city’s hands of the responsibility to open the lake.

Told about the suit, Hoffman declined to comment until he'd reviewed it. Officials from the corporation couldn't be reached for comment. Councilor Bill Tierney, the most outspoken elected supporter of keeping the public out of the lake, also declined to comment until he'd read the suit.

The lawsuit seeks to block any sale of public land to the corporation and calls the new resolution both illegal and unconstitutional. The suit says the city has a responsibility to “protect and preserve the public’s right of access to and use of the Lake.”

Michael Blumm, a law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School, who consulted with the group that brought the suit but is not a party, is confident the lake will be opened.

“We wouldn’t have filed it if we didn’t expect to win,” he says. “It may take awhile, but we think this is pretty clear.”

The suit’s plaintiffs are Mark Kramer “a long time enthusiast of paddling on Oregon’s lakes, rivers, and streams, including the Lake” who is not a resident of Lake Oswego and Todd Prager, a member of the city’s planning commission who has “continuously and consistently advocated for allowing public access to the Lake for recreational purposes.”

The plaintiff’s attorneys are working on the case pro bono, though there is a fund to cover legal expenses. (Donations are accepted through PayPal here.)

The access issue is a hot button in the city. After Prager’s planning commission brought it up last year the Corporation, which employs several people full-time on a $2 million budget, packed council meetings with angry members. It was surprising for Blumm, who was booed at the meeting.

“I think if you’d attended some of those public meetings you’d be shocked at how quickly the Lake Corporation could assemble a room full of 200 people who don’t represent the rest of the city at all, let alone the state,” he says. “They have a political machine going on there and they’ve managed to scare people into thinking this is about property values in the same way, I think, that people used to think that if you sold to a minority you’d ruin it for the rest of the neighborhood.”

Although Blumm expects the city and corporation to team up to fight the lawsuit, they don’t always get along. Last year, the city sought to stop the corporation from erecting a “wave abatement structure” that was actually a wall to keep the public out. The Oregon Department of State Lands, which has jurisdiction over the lake and polices it with taxpayer-funded authorities, eventually blocked the wall.

If the suit is successful, don’t look for Blumm floating across the water.

“I would stipulate that I would never go on that lake, but I don’t think its right to have one lake in Oregon that’s private like this,” he says.

 
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