Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at Lake Sammamish State Park and examining its problems. This week’s story focuses on the park’s biggest struggles. Next week will focus on possible solutions.
From a distance, the popping sounded like fireworks, illegal but not uncommon at Lake Sammamish State Park.
But then a park aid who had been cleaning a restroom called over the radio: some idiot had just unloaded 10-15 gunshots into the air to break up a brawl.
Before Ranger Tor Bjorklund, a 15-year veteran at the park, had time to react, a second call buzzed across the radio.
“Oh shit, someone just shot him.”
The ensuing gunfight left two dead and several more injured, all at a favorite picnic spot filled with families.
While the July 2010 shooting was isolated – nothing like that had happened in 20 years – it caused locals to look anew at the park. What became obvious was years of neglect at a once rural state park, which is now seemingly out of place in an urban area.
It’s a soggy April afternoon and park rangers are ripping out the interior of the Sunset Beach restrooms. The building isn’t heated in the winter, so mold turns the stalls black, and leaks rot out window frames.
Typically the rangers take buckets of bleach to the inside of the 1950s bath house, but this year they were given permission to renovate them, at a cost of about $6,000.
They’ve had the money and the supplies for a few years, but were told to hold off, while the state tried to win grant money to build an entirely new building. The money never came. That’s been the story at Lake Sammamish State Park for years.
The last major park improvement was in the early 1970s with the opening of Tibbetts Beach, which has a small concession stand and a place to rent boats.
However, Sunset Beach, which has been used for swimming since the 1950s, has been overtaken by weeds and goose poop. The parking lot resembles 1,000 small
lakes in the spring and is closed during winter. Those who try to walk through adjacent grass picnic fields risk losing a shoe to the mud.
The state also cut money for lifeguards in 1992. They came back for a two-year pilot program, but the guards were gone again in 2010, said Ranger Rich Benson, the park manager.
Last summer, a man drowned on the unwatched beach. Some say it could have been prevented.
“As park manager that operates two swim beaches, I’d like to see lifeguards come back,” Benson said. However, he added, lifeguards aren’t a priority for state parks.
A month after the July shooting, Lake Sammamish was back to its typical attendance. Today, most park visitors don’t even know about the deaths, Bjorklund said.
Shootings aren’t typically good indicators of crime problems, he said. “Someone just brought their problems into the park.”
Lake Sammamish is certainly safer today than it was in the ’70s, said Ranger Benson, who has been at the park since 1979. A woman hasn’t been assaulted in years – a big change from the days of serial killer Ted Bundy.
The park’s facility problems were addressed in a 2007 master plan, but like all the plans before it, the money fell short.
“It was a victim of timing,” said Peter Herzog, a state parks stewardship program manager, who has taken the park to heart.
The economy is bad, but state parks have been short on money for much longer than problems with the state’s budget. It’s become an annual state project to publish a list of park closures.
Nevertheless, the Lake Sammamish advisory committee still felt its master plan was solid, and it began applying for money.
It nailed a large grant, but without matching dollars from the state or other grants, construction fizzled.
“We tried several times, but ultimately the types of projects getting funding by the state parks commission were more geared toward fixing what you had,” Herzog said. “There was a real resistance to get into something new or expanded.”
The effort didn’t go without a minor reward. The group won money to at least design the first phase of improvements.
It also was able to begin replacing five aging boat ramps, a major draw for visitors, but it’s not the catalyst the park needs to get people excited about picnicking again.
Meanwhile, state park plans have life spans, and without money, this one is beginning to become history.
This year state parks asked the Legislature for about $84 million, which would have included a new bathhouse for Sunset Beach. However, Gov. Chris Gregoire came back requesting only $18 million, said Daniel Farber, capital program manager for the Northwest region.
It will be at least another six years before the state sees financial recovery, said Sen. Cheryl Pflug, whose district includes the park.
The biggest eyesore at the park seems to be everywhere picnickers step – geese dump all over the lawns, said Bud Dale, who has been walking weekly in the park for 23 years.
Unlike other jurisdictions, the state is resistant to killing wildlife and generally sees its land as an animal sanctuary, said Ranger Benson.
The poop issue is one of many ways Washington State Parks’s rural mission is different from heavily developed park lands like King County’s Marymoor Park or Renton’s Gene Coulon Park.
Both of those parks focus on what drives crowds and makes revenue. They lease restaurant space and rent out fields for concerts and baseball games.
Lake Sammamish was swept into the same philosophy in 2003. Planners envisioned a Coney-Island-style boardwalk with restaurants and souvenir shops. They discussed concert venues, massive indoor facilities, including a baseball field.
The planning team drew up different designs, but state parks had a change of mind, Herzog said. “There was a significant community resistance.”
Today’s plan is to have a balanced approach between the demands of urban families who focus on soccer fields, and providing access to nature, Herzog said.
The hope now is to renovate the beaches, build new restrooms and a boardwalk around the Sunset Beach swim area.
The plan would also reclaim a small piece of developed parkland to create a wetland buffer along Issaquah Creek. About 70 percent of the 512-acre park is preserved wetlands.
“Because it is in an urban setting, what is most important is that it is a natural oasis in the setting,” Herzog said.
Ranger Benson added that if the park’s soccer fields weren’t already built several years ago, state parks would never let them be built today.
Though support for the new park plan has been strong, it still clashes with many family’s expectations of an urban park.
“They don’t have a strong recreation component,” said Sen. Pflug, who went to bat for the Issaquah Soccer Club building more fields. “This one really needs to be much more recreational use.”
Mike Alvorson has been taking his son to play soccer at the park for three years, but he didn’t even know it had a beach or picnic area. Soccer mom Anna Voigt picnics at the park occasionally, but the facilities and no lifeguards are a turn off.
She’d like to see more specific uses, like volleyball courts, and thinks the area already has a strong enough focus on conservation, she said. “I think they need to draw in more people.”
Ranger Tor Bjorklund, a 15-year veteran of Lake Sammamish State Park, was the first on site during the July 2010 shooting that left two dead and several more injured. Albeit an isolated event, it got people talking about the downfall of the park. CELESTE GRACEY, for the Bellevue Reporter
Boys from the Issaquah Soccer club stretch before one of their first games of the season. Only about 30 percent of the park is developed for recreational use, and much of that space is dedicated to soccer fields. CELESTE GRACEY, for the Bellevue Reporter