Oregon's Wealthiest City Grapples with Social Justice Crusaders over Lake Access

For decades, Oswego Lake lay serene amidst pine-topped hills and valley coves in Lake Oswego, Oregon, the wealthiest city in terms of per capita income in the state. The lake is privately owned by the nonprofit Lake Oswego Corporation, an HOA-like organization of resident property owners

The lake is manmade: in the 1940s, a canny developer built a dam and filled a natural basin along the path of the Tualatin River, then built luxury homes along the newly-created shoreline. Along those shores and benefiting from its vistas is an assortment of homes, everything from Gatsby-esque mansions to more rustic or contemporary dwellings, and many, many boat houses, docks, and private boat ramps.

As a student in the Lake Oswego School District (LOHS Class of ’69), I knew that unless you lived on the lake, or lived near enough to it to have an easement, or knew somebody who did, you could not swim, boat, or otherwise recreate on the 415-acre body of water. Eventually, my sister bought a home which had an easement, so many summer weekends we’d head for a fenced and gated beach that only those with a certifiable address were allowed to access.

Interestingly, nowhere was this restriction—which actually excludes approximately two-thirds of the city’s own residents—codified or even legally enforceable. It was generally understood: the lake is private, and, at all but a few scattered city-owned locations, a person would have to trespass on private property to get to the water.

“Living on the lake” was having it made, upper crust, old money and new. “LO,” as it’s often referred to, was and is the richest city in Oregon’s richest county, Clackamas County. The schools were and are top-notch, the streets safe and clean, and law enforcement is—I can attest to this from my high school days—pretty much on top of everything that happens.

That’s the way it was, until 2012

Enter three liberals: city resident and then-city planning commissioner Todd Prager, Lewis and Clark College law professor Michael Blumm, and a lawyer, Mark Kramer. The unwritten law that excluded a majority of the community from access to Lake Oswego’s civic touchstone bothered Prager. He made his feelings known with a proposal to open the lake to all city residents, and, concomitantly,  the general public. He was about to find out just what those residents—and most of the city’s elected officials—thought about opening their private, paid-for lake to the great unwashed.

The city held public hearings on the matter. Never had the council chambers been so packed, with SRO crowds bleeding out into the halls. Citizen after citizen took to the microphone to rail in opposition to Prager’s proposition, and what it portended for the privacy and property rights of lakeside residents. How the pervasive effect of unlocked gates would devalue everything that made LO desirable.

Moms complained that they were not comfortable having out-of-towners kayaking in proximity to what is essentially their backyards. Dads wondered about the negative impact such an incursion of the hoi polloi would have on property values. Would Lake Corp. disband, leaving the lake under control of the county, or even the state, with new regulations, stipulations, and environmental mandates?

Longtime residents asked why, in a state with recreational rivers and lakes all over the map, Prager and his crusaders were so adamantly storming this private bastion of wealth. Newcomers worried about a potential influx of the societal ills they’d worked hard to be able to afford to avoid: trash left behind, irresponsible behaviors, and worse, drugs, vagrancy, and other criminal activity. A gaggle of Lewis and Clark students showed up too (Professor Blumm was spreading the word), distinguished by their hipster outfits and social justice handbooks. They represented an extreme minority voice in support of opening Lake Oswego’s lake to not only the excluded two-thirds of city residents, but anyone who could bus into town with an inflatable.

The specter of floating porta-potties, (a necessity if the lake went public) was raised, to the horror of the hundreds in attendance at one hearing.

Prager soon found himself vilified by many in the community. City leaders, responding to the overwhelming public condemnation of Prager’s gambit, acted to protect the lake from a non-resident incursion. The city council passed a park rule which codified that which was generally understood for decades. On the basis of a city’s right to enact laws governing parks within its jurisdiction, access to Oswego Lake was denied to all but those as permitted by the Lake Corporation’s agreements and bylaws. Fines for violation of the rule range from $145.00 to $1,000.00.

Ostracized and stripped of municipal influence, Prager didn’t back off. Instead, he and Kramer sued Lake Corp., claiming that Oswego Lake was a “navigable waterway,” and thus owned by the state. Lake Corp. fired back saying they owned the land under the lake, and pointed to their investment in terms of organization and maintenance.

As the trial commenced, the entire Portland Metro area joined the debate, with the Oregonian receiving hundreds of comments on the issue. Class warfare rhetoric was deployed against “Lake Oswego rich people trying to keep the riff-raff out.” Lake Oswegans, including many who were demonstrably not rich, passionately defended their community, and its right to have a private lake untrammeled by the masses.

In 2014, the verdict came down. Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Henry C. Breithaupt ruled that the city has a right to restrict access to its property, specifically the few lake access points that are not owned by private homeowners. By sewing up this loose end, the ruling preserved the exclusivity status quo.

In 2015 Prager was ousted from the planning commission. But he and Kramer weren’t done. They appealed, and in May of this year, lost again.

But a final answer as to the future of Oswego Lake is still pending. In early October the Oregon Supreme Court announced that it will review the case.

One of the core questions liberals keep asking regarding the situation is: why would a majority of local voters continue to support politicians who align with a private corporation that allows only one-third of the local populace access to the lake? Many residents who don’t have lakefront property or easement rights support the new rule that keeps the lake private.

For the conservative-minded, there’s no mystery. Because nobody can have anything nice if everybody is allowed to have it. But it’s too easy to cast this as “affluent conservatives keeping the less fortunate out of their exclusive enclave.” Thanks to Prager’s grand windmill tilt, there is that. But many of the same people who want the lake kept private voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016—she won LO. There’s no shortage of upscale left-wingers thereabouts. In fact, some would say they’re running the show.

But Democrat, Republican, or something else, a majority of the citizens of Lake Oswego know what they don’t want in their backyards. And a majority of the two-thirds with no lake access are close enough to those serene waters to know that there are things worth preserving that will benefit them, if not directly, then by a very tangible process of municipal osmosis.