Microsoft co-founder and Seahawks owner Paul Allen's waterfront estate on the west side of Mercer Island, which he began assembling in 1985, has an assessed value north of $25 million. Apparently, he thinks that entitles him to a plot of Lake Washington, too, or so a local power boater believes after being accused of trespassing in front of Allen's mansion during a recent evening cruise.
According to boater Marty Oppenheimer, a resident of Seward Park, "We were slowly cruising south along Mercer Island from the home of a friend...to south of the Paul Allen compound. We were inside the buoys which demarcate a zone [extending 100 yards offshore] for traveling at a speed below 8 mph (7 knots).As we neared the Paul Allen floating helipad...a security guy came out on the helipad and informed us that we had crossed a property line and were trespassing on private property."
While it may be true that every man's home is his castle, and perhaps nowhere more so than on the gold coast of M.I., how is it possible to trespass without setting foot on dry land? On Lake Washington, jurisdiction is confusingly divided among the Coast Guard, King County, and municipalities that ring the lake (Seattle included). Washington state owns the deep lake bed and the actual water. Ownership of the shallower shoreline becomes even more convoluted, since property lines can extend underwater, and such land shows up on your tax assessment. Lakefront property owners often complain bitterly about being unable to build or repair their docks, located on submerged land they own, because of complicated shoreline regulations.
Still, according to Mercer Island spokesperson Joy Bueling, "The water adjacent to private property on the island is treated like any public right of way.Just as the public has the right to use a public street in front of a private home, the public is generally allowed to use the water without restrictions, as long as they are abiding by wake rules....The public is allowed in waters in front of private homes, but city code prohibits docking or mooring on private property without permission of the owner."
There are restrictions farther out from shore, beyond what's called the inner harbor line, where water has a navigable depth of 15 feet. That line can be 10 feet or 100 yards offshore from your lawn, depending on the drop-off. Lakefront homeowners can only own the submerged land that extends out to this point, and make no claim on the water above. They can't extend docks beyond the harbor line, but neither can they restrict law-abiding boaters or swimmers from passing within inches of their docks and shoreline—just so long as they don't moor or otherwise touch dry property. (Anchoring is prohibited on the lake except for Andrews Bay in the lee of Seward Park.)
No matter its value, Paul Allen's shoreline is no different. He's amassed four waterfront parcels in a row, plus four more inland, for a total of 8.7 acres. (By way of comparison, Bill Gates' Medina estate is a mere 5 acres.) He also recently lost a battle with Mercer Island to build a helicopter pad onshore, so he put one on top of a boat to serve the same purpose—only the craft has to putter into the water for a whirlybird to land on it before returning to dock.
This is the same floating helipad that Oppenheimer and his wife were examining during their evening sightseeing cruise, he says. Referring to the security guard, Oppenheimer adds, "This clown tried to assert private property rights on a navigable waterway, which I believe is patently absurd.While it is possible that Allen owns the underlying land, I don't believe U.S. or Washington state law allows him to assert ownership over the body of water."
Mercer Island's municipal code supports Oppenheimer's position. It claims jurisdiction over "all lands under Lake Washington extending waterward to the line of navigability/inner harbor line." The only boating restrictions are the 100 yards/7 knots rule and prohibitions against mooring, as well as rowdy or unsafe behavior. And the King County assessor says Allen's property line ends at the shore, just like his neighbors. Mercer Island concurs.
No matter what Allen's security guard may have asserted, a spokesperson for Allen takes a less proprietary view of the situation. "We protect our private property," says Michael Nank. "We don't claim any rights to the waters of Lake Washington. If somebody gets too close to the vessel that's moored to the dock, there may be some concerns about liability."
Liability, or privacy? Oppenheimer says the unidentified security guard with "a Secret Service–type earpiece" pointed to a buoy about 50 yards off Allen's dock—as if that indicated his private water space. "We were probably 30 feet from the helipad," Oppenheimer recalls. "The guy asks, 'Didn't [we] see the buoy out there? It indicates private property.'" As for how threatening Allen's guard's demeanor was, Oppenheimer says, "It wasn't super belligerent. I couldn't tell if he had a gun."
Mercer Island says the buoy in question was lawfully placed by Allen within the inner harbor line to indicate the no-wake zone. Oppenheimer retorts that it's actually positioned closer to shore than the official 100 yard/7 knot buoys. Regardless of this mystery buoy's purpose, Nank says it's not meant to prohibit kayakers or sailors. "If boaters want to boat by, there's no particular demarcation. It in no way indicates any kind of line."
Over in Seattle, where property lines do often extend into the lake, Doug Harris of the Seattle Police Harbor Patrol says of the water above, "When you're floating on it, it would be difficult to say you're trespassing. The only minimum distance is the 100-yard speed limit." Do he and his fellow freshwater officers ever get calls from property owners about boaters coming too close to shore? "It's rare."
None of which should be taken to mean that you can then bring your binoculars and telephoto lenses to gawk at Allen (or Gates or the McCaws) from your bass boat floating a few feet from shore. At that point, according to Mercer Island and other municipal police, nuisance or voyeurism statutes could be applied. (Instances of waterborne theft have been reported to Seattle's boat cops.)
This battle between waterfront exclusivity and access has played out before, also with Oppenheimer as an advocate for the Friends of Street Ends, an organization that has successfully lobbied for public water access infringed by those wealthy enough to afford lakefront homes. (In May, Seattle Weekly reported on a similar Laurelhurst dispute involving Bill Gates' sister.) But this time, per Allen's spokesperson, the billionaire is backing down.