Tired of red tape, residents build their own turn lane

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

January 01, 1995|By Seattle Times

RENTON, Wash. -- On weekends or under the cover of darkness, disgruntled residents in a rural valley east of here are taking back their government. They're doing it with a dump truck and a backhoe.

Frustrated by the state's delay in fixing one of the area's more dangerous intersections, six May Valley residents in December partially built a turn lane off Highway 900, using their own equipment and money.

Authorities say it probably is the first do-it-yourself repair project on a state highway.

"It's trespassing, it violates land-use laws, and it may be unsafe because their work plan was like what you'd draw on the back of a napkin," said Bill Carter, a regional administrator with the state transportation agency.

The state, he said, will have to dig up a 40-foot iron-pipe culvert and 10 truckloads of fill illegally placed at Highway 900 and May Valley Road. The government probably won't press charges against the construction vigilantes unless they try to finish the job, Mr. Carter said.

The impromptu project nearly filled a wetland and might have jeopardized the safety of drivers because the residents did some work at night without proper flagging, state officials said.

But in May Valley, a tiny area southeast of Seattle that's dominated by farms and mom-and-pop construction contractors, the road-work vigilantes are being likened to famous figures of civil disobedience such as Robin Hood or the American revolutionaries.

"It's wonderful what they've done," said Bette Filley, a resident of the area for 22 years. "We have a tradition of self-sufficiency out here that people in the city don't understand.

"Out here, if something breaks, then you just fix it yourself. It doesn't occur to you to wait for somebody else to do it."

"It's like the Boston Tea Party, only in reverse," said Chuck Pillon, a former Seattle police sergeant who lives up the road from the intersection. "We didn't destroy something; we built something when government refused."

Government hadn't exactly refused, although the state concedes that a planning and permitting process that lasted three years left residents justifiably frustrated.

Next summer, the state is to begin a project to straighten two severe curves in the road and install turn lanes at the intersection.

Since 1991, 63 accidents have occurred at the narrow intersection, more than double the usual rate for state highways, according to state traffic records.

When about 100 May Valley residents packed a public meeting in 1993 demanding safety improvements, the state lowered speeds on the road and put in a flashing light.

But the project to build a new turn lane has been delayed for more than a year as the state waits to receive a permit to fill wetlands, said Gary McKee of the state Department of Transportation. He said state officials recognized that it might be only a matter of time before the residents of May Valley tried to solve the problem themselves.

It happened one Sunday in November. Passing the time at Leonard's Bar and Grill not too far from the intersection, some residents decided that they had waited for the state long enough.

The group was led in part by Mr. Pillon, who has defied government before. He was fired six years ago by the Seattle Police Department for violating department procedures in drug raids and since then has led citizen raids on drug houses.

After sketching out a work plan and mailing it to the state, the group borrowed a dump truck and a backhoe. A May Valley company donated the fill material. Another company gave the iron culvert. In sporadic sessions until late last month, the residents worked two weekends and several evenings, building a rough but navigable turn ramp from May Valley Road onto Highway 900.

It sits there now, unpaved and blocked by the state's orange traffic barrels.

"Why should we wait for their multimillion-dollar turn lane that never comes?" asked a worker who requested anonymity. "There's enough contractors living out here that I wouldn't be surprised if we repaved the entire intersection some weekend."

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