Some area residents fear more loss of public access
By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County is considering vacating 11 roads — about 36 miles — as the Public Works staff attempts to reconcile decades-old maps and road logs with actual roads on the ground.
Five of the roads are in the Methow Valley and Brewster areas; others are near Omak Lake, Conconully, and on the Colville Reservation.
Public Works staff, commissioners and planners have been reviewing the county’s 1955 road map and a separate road log for the past several years to see if all roads actually exist and if they are in the location indicated, according to County Engineer Josh Thomson.
The 11 roads and road segments are the first batch where the county believes it has done adequate research to begin the process of vacating the roads, some of which have no trace on the ground, said Thomson. Some sections are a fraction of a mile, while others are as long as 7 miles.
There are no records showing the county ever spent money on maintenance or construction for the roads, suggesting that the county never had the right to claim them in the first place, Thomson said.
Some area residents are concerned that the road-reconciliation process is more than housekeeping, and that it instead continues a pattern where the county has closed roads to public access.
A lawsuit against the county over the closure of Three Devils Road in the Chiliwist is scheduled for oral arguments later this month. Chiliwist residents contend that they use the road to access public lands and that it provides an important evacuation route. The county commissioners closed the road in 2015 at the request of the adjacent property owners, Gamble Land and Timber, who were concerned about trespassing and poaching.
Other citizens point to a 2010 dispute over a 3.5-mile portion of French Creek Road, which had long been gated by an adjacent property owner, even though the road was adopted by the county in 1955. In that case, the county commissioners turned down a request from adjacent property owners Jim Weddle and Gebbers Farms to close the road.
But most of the road was closed to the public shortly thereafter, after lawyers for the property owners produced documents showing that the county only had jurisdiction over a small section of the road.
Most of the 11 roads now under consideration for vacation have not been surveyed, so the county is using the legal description (township, range and section) listed in the old log. County staffers have also compared current and old maps, looked at aerial photos, and tried to match coordinates using GPS, said Thomson.
There are several ways for a road to qualify as a county road, according to state law. Commissioners can incorporate a road into the county system if a county has maintained it for seven years or if it has been used by the public for 10 years.
Roads in and near the Methow Valley that the county is considering vacating include:
- County Road No. 8, near Twin Lakes Road, is near where the road makes a 90-degree turn heading south. The coordinates do not match the location of a nearby trail, said Thomson, who said he can’t find any sign that the road exists.
- County Road No. 25 (Goat Peak area) is in the drainage that goes to the Goat Peak Lookout. The U.S. Forest Service Road that leads to the lookout crosses the old county road, but there are no documents showing the county ever did anything to build it, said Thomson. It would have served the same purpose as the Forest Service road, but is not the same road and is not currently usable.
- County Road No. 81, Texas Creek to Benson Creek, intersects the portion of the road between Texas Creek and French Creek that was vacated in 2010, but the coordinates don’t match the road on the ground. “A road exists on the landscape, but it’s a long ways from the line on the map to where it is today,” said Thomson.
The road is in the Russian Springs area, near private property and land owned by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The portion of the Texas Creek/French Creek Road that leads to the area is gated and not open to the public, but DNR has some access rights for timber management, said Thomson.
In his report on the roads, Thomson said part of the road mostly follows a Forest Service road but is not passable. Private property owners needing access from the road have indicated that they support the vacation, he wrote.
“What we are vacating will have no impact on the roads that are out there — no impact on how the roads are currently managed,” said Thomson.
- County Road #103 is near Indian Dan Canyon Road and Paradise Hill, near Brewster. The 1955 map included a loop and a short-cut. There is a house on the former loop, which is now used as a driveway, said Thomson.
Other roads on the list for potential vacation include segments that don’t connect with any other roads, one that ended up under water after Wells Dam was built, and several on the Colville Reservation that are part of the tribal or Bureau of Indian Affairs road systems, said Thomson.
While most of the proposed vacations seem straightforward, Thomson said he anticipates that action on the Texas and Benson creek section will be contentious. Although people want access to the area, Thomson said he doesn’t believe they have legal access.
One indication of interest in these roads is a request for public records submitted to the county last week by the Davis Arneil Law Firm in Wenatchee. The attorneys requested all records from 1925 to the present pertaining to roads No. 81 and No. 103, plus a nearby Forest Service Road, including correspondence, maintenance costs and photos and comments sent to the county by the public. A copy of the request was provided to the Methow Valley News and other local newspapers by a member of the public.
There is no indication on whose behalf Davis Arneil is requesting the records. The firm is representing Gamble Land and Timber in the Three Devils Road case.
The Methow Valley Citizens Council is also tracking the proposed vacations. In an alert to its members, the environmental group said that vacating the Texas-Benson Creek Road would permanently cut off access to the French Creek basin and to many acres of public land.
Gas taxes for roads
The county is required to keep an accurate inventory of all county roads and must document why a road has been added to or removed from the system, said Thomson. Between 1955 and the 1990s, there have been changes to the log without proper action by the commissioners, he said.
In addition to the 1955 log and map, the county has logs and maps from the next few decades. In the early 1990s, the system was computerized and all changes were submitted electronically to the Washington State County Road Administration Board (CRAB), said Thomson.
CRAB provides gas-tax revenues to counties based on the mileage in their road systems, population and other factors.
Okanogan County began comparing its records and brought minor inaccuracies to CRAB’s attention about 18 months ago, according to Jay Weber, the board’s executive director. Any road on the inventory would be factored into the tax calculation and would affect other counties’ distributions, said Weber.
“With the extensive nature of the Okanogan County road log, the difference is nominal,” said Weber. “But whether it’s large or small, the road log should be correct.”
The county receives about $400 per mile annually in gas taxes for primitive roads, but that doesn’t even cover the cost of grading, said Thomson. The county doesn’t receive any gas-tax revenue for any of these 11 roads, he said.
The next batch of roads up for reconciliation is being reviewed in conjunction with the Forest Service to determine who has responsibility, said Thomson. It is hoped that the process can be resolved by the end of 2017.
To terminate public access on any road, the engineer must report on whether the road is useful to the county, and the county must hold a public hearing and post notices on the roads in question.
The hearing is Monday (Jan. 23) at 4 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan. People can comment at the hearing, or in advance to Verlene Hughes in the Public Works Department by Thursday (Jan. 19). For more information, contact Hughes at (509) 422-7300 or email@example.com.