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City faces lawsuit demanding lake access

by: Vern Uyetake, A city sign indicates the public shouldn't use steps at Millennium Plaza Park to enter Oswego Lake. In response to recent criticism about the lake's private status, Lake Corp. members have pointed out they pay big premiums to keep the lake's water safe and clean while supporting city services with tax revenue from their high property values.

UPDATE: Lake Oswego resident Todd Prager and longtime water enthusiast Mark Kramer are suing the city for restricting access to Oswego Lake, long maintained as a private body of water by a corporation of homeowners.

The two argue the city, by enacting rules that prohibit boats, swimmers and fishers from entering the lake from parks properties, has unlawfully restricted the public's rights.

According to the lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Portland, Kramer doesn't live in Lake Oswego but is a regular paddler in the state's streams, rivers and lakes, including Oswego Lake.

Prager, a city planning commissioner, has advocated for opening up lake access. He also is an enthusiast of recreational activities on the water, according to the suit.

More information about this case will be available in the next Lake Oswego Review.

The issue of access of Oswego Lake is back on the city council's agenda.

On May 29, the council is scheduled to discuss selling park property to the Lake Oswego Corporation, which has deeds to the lake bed and controls the water and most of the surrounding rim of land. Mayor Jack Hoffman requested the conversation.

"There have been preliminary discussions between the Lake Corporation and city staff about the potential for the Lake Corporation to acquire property from the city related to Lakewood Bay," Hoffman said, later adding that the discussion centers on a strip of property between the water and city property at Sundeleaf and Millennium Plaza Parks. "I feel like it's in the public interest to have this conversation at a public meeting because it involves the potential sale of public property to a private entity."

In recent months, people inside and outside of Lake Oswego have questioned whether lakefront property owners and those with deeded access to swim parks and beaches should be able to pay a nonprofit corporation to have exclusive use of the waterbody.

Waterways are generally considered state-owned and, in 2005, Oregon's attorney general said the public can use lakes and rivers so long as they're deep enough and wide enough to boat in.

Lake Corp. shareholders, who pay dues to help fund water quality work and similar activities, have said they cover a huge premium to keep the water clean and ensure people are safe. That, in turn, keeps their property values high, providing tax revenue that buoys city services and public schools.

City council members have publically advocated for keeping the "status quo," supporting the lake's long-held private status.

But the city also paid attorneys thousands of dollars last year to fight a wave-abatement structure proposed by the Lake Corp. in Lakewood Bay. The 8-foot-wide, 231-foot-long wall would have spanned the city's Sundeleaf Plaza Park.

'Any benefits of this project will be limited to the small portion of the city's residents who belong to the LOC,' attorneys representing the city wrote in protest of the project. 'It would appear the real purpose may be to build a permanent structure that blocks the public from physically accessing the lake.'

The Oregon Department of State Lands eventually denied the proposal.

At a February council meeting, Hoffman said "the only definitive answer on whether Oswego Lake can be accessed by the public and to what measure will come through expensive litigation. ... I do not believe it is in the best interest of our community for this city to be a party to any expensive, community-dividing litigation.'

In April, the council voted unanimously to adopt new park rules prohibiting boats from entering the lake from city properties. Existing rules had already barred swimming, wading and fishing from Sundeleaf Plaza, Millennium Plaza Park and Headlee Walkway, the city's three public lakefront properties.

Hoffman declined to discuss details of the new potential park property sale.

However, he said he felt it was important that the discussion take place in the public arena rather than in an executive session. State rules allow public bodies to meet in private when discussing certain topics, including some real estate matters.

"My goal is to have an open and frank discussion among the seven of us about the public policy issues attendant to selling park property to the Lake Corporation," Hoffman said.