Homeowner in dispute with Seattle City Light refuses to feel powerless
Seattle City Light has contacted 300 residents
with new permit fees to use land around power lines
Sunny Williams gazes past her fence with its neatly tended lawn to sprawling blackberry bushes on Seattle City Light land. The utility plans to tear down the fence which it already has done at several other houses. City Light is asserting its right to control land use after decades of overlooking fences and other additions.
SNOHOMISH — Sunny Williams never imagined that 27 years after buying her home, a utility company would want to tear down her fence and start charging her an annual
fee to use the concrete slab in the backyard.
But that’s what Seattle City Light has told her it will do. It owns part of the backyard. After decades of silence, the agency has decided to exercise its rights.
Williams is one of about 300 homeowners across four counties who received news late last year that they are encroaching on the utility company’s property.
Her Seattle Hill home has a gated fence to allow access to the property, but City Light says that is not sufficient, a surprise to Williams who’s dutifully maintained access and kept down the vegetation for more than a quarter century.
The homeowner before Williams got permission for the fence and slab from another power company, Bonneville Power Administration, which had an easement to use the land from City Light. But Bonneville’s agreement included two important caveats.
It was 1987. Doug and Jodi Gorman, who owned the house before Williams, wanted to install a four-foot-fence and a pickleball court among other improvements. They contacted Bonneville about it and got permission.
But Bonneville did not own the land: They were, and still are, leasing it from City Light, says Bonneville spokesman Kevin Wingert.
Bonneville Power Administration has “no objection” to the fence or play court, the 1987 letter stated. But “if you are not the owner of this property you must obtain the owners’ permission to use this property,” the agency wrote to the Gormans.
With permission from Bonneville, but not from City Light, Gorman built his fence and his pickleball court. A few years later, Williams bought the beige tri-level Seattle Hill home.
It wasn’t until Williams saw a copy of the 31-year-old letter from Bonneville in November that she learned of the second caveat: “This agreement is entered into with the express understanding that it is not assignable or transferable,” it reads in part.
The former owners’ oversight has led to some potentially expensive trouble for Williams.
The 69-year-old says she is living on less than $1,000 a month. She’s told City Light she can’t afford their $100 annual yard use permit or to remove the fence after the agency tears it down.
She said she certainly does not have the money to pay for a new fence to be installed on her property line, but she worries how she will keep out coyotes, bears or cougars without one.
City Light has sent representatives to meet with Williams, and it has made a compromise. The utility company originally planned to bill Williams for taking down the fence, but has since told Williams it will absorb that cost. It has also offered a 100-day extension before it would charge for the permit.
It draws the line there.
“We can’t make a gift of public funds by granting someone free use of publicly owned land,” says City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen. “That is not her backyard.”
Thomsen says whether for maintenance or emergency repairs, City Light needs unfettered access to its land.
Faced with the choice to pay the $100 per year permit fee or abandon the land, Williams says she has no choice. She’s fighting the decision though, appealing to government agencies, the media and City Light, which is itself controlled by the City of Seattle.
The days of her great grandchildren playing in the backyard are over, she fears. And the slab where her daughter learned to roller skate will be off limits unless she can pay the $100 per year permit fee.
She says she’s been a steward of the land in good faith for almost three decades.
She tears up as she moves gingerly through the backyard, still recovering from the severe complications from hip surgeries that plagued her in 2018.
After the surgeries, she said she had to divide the lawn mowing job into five sections. Using a crutch, it took three days, but she did it.
She, too, is holding fast to her belief that the encroachment claim is not right.
“They’ve never knocked on my door in 27 years,” Williams says. Why now, she wonders.
She sees the potential $100 per homeowner per year permit option as a money grab from 300 homeowners, since the fee could generate about $30,000 annually for City Light.
“That dollar amount is not intended to generate revenue for the utility, it is merely present to defray administrative costs in managing the permit and invoicing for it yearly,” Kelly McGill, a project manager contracting for City Light, told Williams in a letter.
Williams is holding on to the little power she feels she has, denying the agency permission to enter through the front of her property to tear down the fence.
“I acted in good faith,” all these years, she says. She wants Seattle City Light to do the same, meaning let her keep the fence and the land access for free, or at the very least, least remove the fence for free.
The agency said it would be sending a 30-day notice before tearing down the fence. But after continued protest, City Light says it is holding off on further action until it can meet with Williams.
It’s a request Williams is in no hurry to answer.
“I know they’re the big guys,” she says, but “it’s not fair,” and “I’m not going to stop fighting.”
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