$1.2M High Dune Trail gets right-of-way

Ocean Shores clears property rights hurdle and looks forward to construction after stagnant negotiations

Ocean Shores Mayor Jon Martin said Monday he signed a $2,800 land-use easement granting the city access to build the proposed High Dune Trail across a 200-foot land parcel west of the Lighthouse Suites Inn.

Martin said with funding already secured, getting the right-of-way was the last major hurdle to starting construction, pending further environmental review and discussions with the Washington Department of Ecology.

According to Martin and City Administrator Scott Andersen, construction on the projected $1.2 million trail — a paved, wheelchair-accessible walking and biking path stretching from Damon Road to West Chance a la Mer — should break ground by spring 2023.

In signing the easement, the city avoided having to pursue access through an eminent domain court proceeding, which it previously threatened following unproductive easement negotiations.

“We finally were able to have a conversation about what we were trying to do, and that we had no intention to expand beyond what our needs were and to work with the owner,” Martin said Tuesday in an interview with The Daily World.

The city, along with Lisa Cox, a contracted right-of-way agent with Epic Land Solutions, had been in negotiations with the Altanatural Corporation — owner of the Lighthouse Suites Inn and the dunes land to the west of it — and its attorney since 2021 regarding the city’s right to build the trail in front of the hotel.

Ideas for a cross-dune trail have been percolating in Ocean Shores for over 30 years, Andersen said.

The current concept for the High Dune Trail took shape under the leadership of late Mayor Crystal Dingler in 2019, when the council set aside $264,000 out of the city’s budget for the project, which will roll over into 2023, according to city grant writer Sarah Bisson.

But that amount was the “bare bones” of what the project required, Bisson said.

That same year, the city also received $277,217 from the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments, which was Washington Department of Transportation Alternative funding.

The trail was suitable for the WSDOT funding, at least in part, Bisson said, because it will improve beach transportation.

Sand dune travel in Ocean Shores, currently, at least, means navigating a woven tangle of matted trails, some barely identifiable from surrounding shrubs and grasses. The High Dune Trail should ease pressure on the ecologically fragile dunes — which are vulnerable to erosion — and spread out beach traffic, according to Bisson

“Vehicles, mopeds, bicyclists, families and horses, they all utilize the same space on the beach at the same time,” Bisson said. “(The trail) gives them an alternative mode of transportation from Damon Road to Chance la Mer.”

But as part of the state’s funding requirement, the city had to conduct a title search to prove it owned all of the land needed for the proposed trail. Initial title searches didn’t reveal any property title issues, according to Bisson, The Daily World reported in June.

The city initially intended to begin construction on the project last June, but further title searches revealed that Altanatural owned the 200-foot section of land outside the Lighthouse Inn, which was formerly a Best Western, and the city would have to negotiate an easement with the company to proceed with the project.

In April, Cox extended the $2,800 easement offer to the corporation. Andersen said that value was assigned by Epic Land Solutions.

The letter included a statement saying, “If a mutually agreeable settlement is not reached, the City, acting in the public interest, will use its right of eminent domain to acquire property for public use,” but that “every reasonable effort” would be made to avoid litigation.

The offer was met with questions from hotel management and Altanatural’s attorney, Kevin Bay. According to city documents, they expressed concerns about parking, trail maintenance, that the trail would block beach views for hotel guests, and confusion about whether or not the High Dune Trail was also a fire break.

Andersen said the fire break project is separate from the High Dune project, and the city has already completed the first part of a fire break to protect the row of hotels near the dunes.

In August, Bay inquired about moving the proposed trail farther to the west so it wouldn’t obstruct ocean views.

“We actually pushed the trail back farther from the hotel as sort of a result of that,” Andersen said. “We did try to meet some of the conditions.”

While negotiations stood still — city documents show Cox prompted Altanatural for a response in August — the city had to meet requirements of a major funding source it received in June, an additional $606,000 from the Council of Governments and Department of Transportation.

“The Department of Transportation will allow us to move forward with the grant if we can demonstrate we are moving forward on getting the right of way,” Martin said at a Sept. 26 council meeting.

“Either we need to make a decision to move forward or not move forward,” Martin said.

The city council pushed the issue at a Sept. 26 meeting, when the council passed an ordinance directing “staff to exhaust all reasonable negotiation efforts” with Altanatural, but also demonstrating to WSDOT the “city’s commitment to exercise eminent domain where necessary to acquire necessary properties.”

According to the state’s eminent domain law, governments have the power to acquire private property if it is deemed necessary for public use.

Martin said signing the agreement, rather than going to court, was preferable to eminent domain for both parties.

“I never wanted to use eminent domain,” Martin said. “It will be a benefit for the hotel and a benefit for the city to get it.”

Andersen added, “In my personal opinion, the trail is going to be a boon to all the hotels in that hotel row.”

Andersen said the trail will be an “amazing amenity,” acting as a tourism draw and a health benefit for local residents.

Before the city can break ground, it will need to get final environmental clearance from Ecology, Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The city already manipulated preliminary designs by creating plans for wooden posts and boardwalks in order to navigate around wetlands.

According to Bisson, the city won’t know the exact cost of the project until project designs are finalized. Around $1.2 million in funding has already been secured, and Bisson said she didn’t anticipate any cost overruns, but it was possible since inflation is driving up costs of those extra materials.

Once the final design is complete, Martin said, the city will conduct public outreach to inform the public of what the next steps are, and will seek a vendor for construction.