Final decision postponed while property owner asks for reconsideration
By Marcy Stamper
Although the Okanogan County hearing examiner recommended that the primitive road that leads over the ridge from the Chiliwist to the Methow Valley and the Loup Loup summit remain open to the public, the final decision has been postponed because the adjacent property owner who wants the road closed is asking the examiner to reconsider his decision.
In his May 4 recommendation, Hearing Examiner Dan Beardslee rejected the request by Gamble Land and Timber to close the road. “Three Devils Road is useful to the County Road system as an emergency evacuation route, as a scenic drive, and as a connector to National Forest Lands to the West. It is therefore useful to the County Road system,” he wrote in his recommendation to the county commissioners.
The commissioners have final authority on whether to vacate the road. Because attorneys for Gamble Land said they would ask Beardslee to reconsider, the commissioners did not take up the matter at their hearing on Monday (May 11), but will wait until Beardslee has reviewed the request for reconsideration.
County law gives an aggrieved party the opportunity to ask for reconsideration within 14 days of the hearing examiner’s decision if the party believes the decision is in error or there is new evidence. The decision to reconsider is at the discretion of the examiner.
In his written recommendation, Beardslee said he was sympathetic to the needs of Gamble Land, who requested that the county vacate three miles of the road so it can manage the land and protect property rights. But Beardslee wrote that the proponents had not demonstrated that the road is useless to the county road system, nor that the public would be benefited if the county abandoned the road.
The steep, winding road leads through property Gamble owns for timber and cattle grazing. The company said leaving the road open creates problems because people trespass; leave gates open, allowing their cattle to stray; and poach wildlife.
The Chiliwist community suffered extensive damage in the Carlton Complex Fire last summer. Half of the residences in the area burned, and people had to evacuate on a moment’s notice. The area was affected by mudslides and flash floods later in the summer.
Testimony from area residents and written comments submitted to the county pointed out that Three Devils Road is the only road leading to the west, particularly because other roads in the area have already been privatized and are gated.
“Gamble argues that the public will be benefitted by the vacation of the road inasmuch as the County would be freed of the duty to maintain it and similarly freed of liability for lack of maintenance, but the benefit to the County government should not be confused with the needs of the County as represented by and comprised of its citizens,” wrote Beardslee. “The testimony by citizens, both oral and written, particularly with respect to the utility of the road as an emergency evacuation route, is far more compelling.”
Beardslee wrote that the county had received many letters, mainly from residents of the Chiliwist and Malott, and a petition signed by 228 individuals, all opposing vacation of the road. The only correspondence to the county in favor of vacating the road had been submitted by Gamble Land, he said.
There was audible frustration from some of the three dozen Chiliwist-area residents who attended the commissioners’ meeting on Monday when the decision on the road closure was postponed.
As part of their original request for vacation, Gamble Land presented evidence showing that the company had carried out and paid for the majority of maintenance since acquiring the road in the 1990s, including $35,000 to repair damage from last year’s fire and floods.
Chiliwist residents had asked Beardslee to recuse himself, saying he could not be impartial because of professional connections with the Gebbers family. Gamble Land is operated by members of that family.
Beardslee denied the request for recusal at the April 9 hearing on the road vacation and stated in his recommendation to the commissioners that he is “of the firm and definite conviction that the matter of the vacation of Three Devils road was the subject of a fair and impartial hearing and that this recommendation … is … without bias to any party….”
Beardslee drove the route himself a week and a half after the hearing and found the road to be “quite passable.” He noted that a gate at the western end, which leads to the national forest, was open.
Beardslee had requested additional briefing from lawyers for Gamble Land and for the Chiliwist Residents & Friends regarding a state law that prohibits vacation of roads abutting bodies of water. Beardslee wrote that the law did not appear to apply, but suggested the commissioners be aware of the statute when making their final decision on the vacation.
Attorneys for Gamble Land have until Monday (May 18) to submit their request for reconsideration. Beardslee has 10 days to decide whether he will review the matter. Either Gamble Land or the Chiliwist residents can appeal Beardslee’s decision on the request for reconsideration or his final recommendation. Those appeals would be made to the commissioners.