Oswego Lake: It is private — or is it?
For years, few have questioned the exclusivity of Oswego Lake, controlled by the Lake Oswego Corporation, an organization of lakefront property owners.
But if members of the general public did have the right to boat and swim in the lake, could they legally get to the water?
It appears they could.
According to public records obtained by the Lake Oswego Review, the city owns at least a property or two without any obvious restrictions on public access.
As the long-simmering issue of public versus private access began to boil last fall, the Review requested information about city-owned waterfront properties, including documentation of covenants and other restrictions related to the lake.
The resulting report, which does not represent a complete legal review, shows there are at least two spots - and maybe three - where visitors and residents alike might one day be able to legally enter the water. The city's legal counsel declined to provide an opinion on the summary, which states:
* At Sundeleaf Plaza, where the city consolidated a group of properties to create its newest park, some of the original parcels touch Oswego Lake and some border Lakewood Bay. Two of the properties on the south end of the park are within a 1925 plat that granted 'the right and privilege to use Oswego Lake,' although these parcels face some restrictions in using Lakewood Bay.
* In lower Millennium Plaza Park, where steps descend into the water and signs warn that the lake is off-limits to the public, the city owns three parcels; it also has an easement from Southern Pacific Transportation Company on additional land for 'park and walkway purposes.' Officials declined to say whether recreational water use might be among activities allowed there, and all but a southerly portion of the steps down to the water are within the railroad easement area.
However, a small segment of the stairs as well as landscaping at the park's southern end are part of a city-owned parcel 'that does not have deed restrictions relating to the lake.'
* It's possible city-owned land purchased in 2004 on Diamond Head Road, near the lake's Lilly Bay, touches the water at 'one small point to the southwest,' but maps are inconsistent, and the land is subject to Lake Corp. rules, according to the city.
Doug Thomas, president of the Lake Corporation's board of directors, said the idea that the city might own some unrestricted land around the lake's rim simply is 'not true.'
'We, the community of Lake Oswego Corporation, are dedicated and committed to the health and vitality of the lake and the community,' Thomas said last week. 'But at this time, we don't want to get into the legality of anything. We feel we're being threatened legally. We have to prepare ourselves for battle.'
He declined to comment further about lake access.
Although Lake Oswego residents can use the city's seasonal swim park on Ridgeway Road, and some have access to Lake Grove Swim Park, operated by the school district, only those who own property along the water - and those with access to easements, essentially private park areas, docks and beaches - are allowed on the lake.
Defenders of keeping the status quo argue that public access would overcrowd the 415-acre lake and would drive down the value of Lake Oswego's most lucrative properties, reducing the revenue available for basic government services and public schools. Property taxes are the city's biggest discretionary revenue source.
They're worried about the prospect of drawing an untold number of visitors with no control over who those people are. They also note that Lake Corp. shareholders pay dues, a hefty chunk of which fund efforts to keep the lake pristine by monitoring water quality and researching factors affecting algae blooms, trapping nuisance nutria and working with the Oswego Lake Watershed Council.
But critics of the long-guarded tradition say the state would handle rules and much of the maintenance, as it does for other bodies of water it owns.
When Oregon became a state in 1859, it generally took ownership of land under waterways big enough to transport people and goods. Regardless of state ownership, in 2005, Oregon's attorney general said the public is allowed to use lakes and rivers so long as the water is deep and wide enough to boat in.
Last year, the city defended the public's enjoyment of the lake at its newest park, Sundeleaf Plaza, after the Lake Corp. proposed building an 8-foot-wide, 231-foot-long 'wave abatement' structure in Lakewood Bay. It would have spanned the entire 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 proposal also included a 'shoreline enhancement' component consisting of a 1-foot-wide planting strip along the seawall.
The Oregon Department of State Lands denied the project, but the Lake Corp. president has said efforts to address wake issues remain under way.
'We have an overcrowded lake already; boats are bigger every year, even though we limit their size,' Thomas said. 'It wouldn't have been a hindrance to the park. … People would have seen plants growing at the top.
'The idea was even though Lakewood Bay doesn't get the same wave action (as the lake), it's all relative.'
Mayor Jack Hoffman acknowledged Tuesday that he met with Lake Corp. officials to talk about Oswego Lake on Feb. 9.
Calling the session 'brainstorming,' he said officials discussed the possibility of building a boardwalk along Lakewood Bay. But he said no one made any property offers and wasn't sure who owned the land in question.