Supreme Court of Washington Issues Landmark Ruling, Confirming Private Ownership of Aquatic Lands

A unanimous Washington State Supreme Court ruling has found in favor of property owners in a landmark decision. The Court issued its opinion January 25, 2024, that confirms that a federal railroad easement granted prior to Washington becoming a state did not prevent the State from taking title to aquatic lands at statehood. As a result, the State took title to those aquatic lands at statehood and effectively conveyed them years later to private owners whose successors continue to own and enjoy them today.

Randall Olsen and the Cairncross & Hempelmann legal team represent 6 of the 8 property owners along the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish who were sued by King County in Federal District Court in January 2020. Based on a 1958 deed from the State of Washington, the property owners own the underwater aquatic lands next to their properties and many have docks built on those lands that they have used for decades to access and enjoy Lake Sammamish.

The County’s lawsuit claimed that King County owned the underwater aquatic lands. The County claimed ownership based on a railroad right-of-way the County acquired in 1998 and converted into the East Lake Sammamish Trail. The County’s lawsuit claimed that the County owns not only the land on which the Trail was built, but also the aquatic lands next to the Trail. The lawsuit claims that the property owners’ docks were trespassing on the County’s land and asked the Court to eject the property owners from those lands and require them to remove their docks at their own cost.

The County argued that the County’s right-of-way along the shore of Lake Sammamish stemmed from a federal grant that was effective before Washington became a State, and so the 200-foot right-of-way granted by the federal government included both the federal land above the lake and the underwater aquatic lands within 100 feet of the tracks. The County also argued that the federal grant of the right-of-way was a patent from the federal government to the railroad for the aquatic lands, and the State of Washington’s Constitution disclaims the State’s ownership of aquatic lands when they were “patented by the United States” prior to statehood.

The Supreme Court issued its opinion that clearly and definitively confirms that the County’s railroad right-of-way was not “patented by the United States,” the disclaimer did not apply, the State took title to the aquatic lands at statehood, and those lands are presently owned by the landowners, not King County.

Cairncross & Hempelmann’s legal team, led by Randall Olsen, is extremely satisfied with the Court’s decision. “This case is a significant win for everyone in the State of Washington who owns waterfront property with a dock or rights to access the water.”

Randall Olsen was supported by Cairncross attorneys Steve VanDerhoef and Jonathan Tebbs, Cairncross legal assistant Rachel Wang, and was joined by Joe Panesko of the Washington State Office of the Attorney General Public Lands and Conservation Division, Van Ness Feldman on behalf of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers, Richard Stephens of Stephens & Klinge, and the Davis Wright Tremaine firm.