‘Quiet title’ process being used to gate French Creek Road
By Marcy Stamper
Pointing to the more-than-100-year history of public travel on French Creek Road, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping backcountry roads open has challenged efforts by a private landowner to close 7.6 miles of the road to the public.
Okanogan County has also challenged the effort to privatize the road, saying the plaintiffs, Gamble Land & Timber and Cascade Holdings Group, are too late to claim ownership because the road was included in a county resolution back in 1955. The plaintiffs have not exhausted other remedies, said the county.
Gamble Land and Cascade Holdings filed a lawsuit in Okanogan County Superior Court in March seeking to obtain ownership of part of French Creek Road by a process called quiet title, which seeks to settle any other claims of ownership. The quiet title process is typically used in real estate to settle conflicting claims over things like property boundaries.
Many of the responses to the lawsuit from both the Okanogan Open Roads Coalition and the county admit only the basic facts of the case — such as the location of the road — and deny the plaintiffs’ other claims.
But the coalition provided additional history to make its case that French Creek Road has been a public right-of-way for a century. A road with the same route (but various names) is documented on maps since the 1890s, they say. They also cite a 1903 Okanogan County resolution that states, “All roads in Okanogan County whether worked by the County or not are public roads.”
The coalition quotes a 1910 Okanogan County resolution that says, “It is forbidden to fence up or obstruct any such roads or trails and those who have done so will have to remove the obstructions.”
Three coalition members named in the response, Lorah Super, Craig Olson and Kevin Creager, say they have used this section of French Creek Road — including the portion that is now gated — by vehicle, foot, horseback and dogsled to travel to Carlton and to Brewster, as well as for recreation.
But they also rely on it for their safety. If a fire, flood or mudslide blocks other area roads, “the gated portion of French Creek Road that is the subject of this action would be [the] only escape route,” they say.
Okanogan County, through its Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Albert Lin and Special Deputy Prosecutor Alexander Mackie, submitted some 40 questions to Gamble and Cascade. The companies have answered some questions but haven’t yet provided all the responses and supporting evidence requested by the county, according to Lin.
The county asked the plaintiffs to admit that French Creek Road has been “open and passable to public vehicular traffic” since the commissioners adopted it by resolution in 1903, and to admit that the road has been in continuous use for at least 10 years. The plaintiffs deny both claims.
In response to a question about prior requests by the county that Gamble remove barriers blocking the road, plaintiffs’ attorney Nick Lofing wrote, “We admit that illegitimate requests for barriers to be removed were made on two occasions … Deny that barriers obstructed county road.” The plaintiffs deny that French Creek Road still follows the same basic route as in the late 1800s.
The coalition and the county are countering Gamble’s claims separately. In fact, the coalition, in a March letter sent to the Washington attorney general, charged that “these encroachments by private landowners have been either officially tolerated or officially endorsed by resolution by county government officials.”
That letter refers to what the coalition says is Okanogan County’s failure to protect the public’s interest in 2009, when a former board of county commissioners allowed a 3-mile section of French Creek Road to remain gated at the request of neighboring property owners, including Gebbers Farms. Gamble Land is a Gebbers family company.
Notification in Oroville newspaper
To notify any parties who may claim an ownership interest in French Creek Road, Gamble Land and Cascade Holdings used what’s called “summons by publication,” running a legal notice in the Okanogan Valley Gazette-Tribune for six weeks in March and April. The Oroville newspaper is one of two legal papers of record in Okanogan County. The other is the Methow Valley News, whose circulation and coverage include French Creek.
According to state law, if there is more than one legal newspaper, the plaintiff has the right to designate in which newspaper the notice will be published.
A member of the Open Roads Coalition spotted the summons in the Gazette-Tribune toward the end of the six-week period and said they scrambled to compile their response within the 60-day window, filing it on the last day.
Gamble’s initial complaint charges that when the county adopted the 1955 resolution, the county “did not pay any compensation to the French Creek Road Landowners, or their predecessors, for the French Creek Road.” They claim the road was built and maintained by Gamble Land, Cascade Holdings or their predecessors.
According to the complaint, Gamble Land owns two parcels adjacent to the road, and Cascade Holdings, a Nevada limited partnership, owns four. County assessors’ records give the same post office box in Brewster as the mailing address for both companies.
The Open Roads Coalition asks the court to void the 2009 resolution and to order the plaintiffs to remove all locked gates. The county asks the court to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint.
The next step will most likely be for a party to file a motion to dismiss the case or for a judge to decide based on the existing record, said Barnett Kalikow, attorney for the Open Roads Coalition. If facts in the case are disputed, it would go to trial and include testimony and cross-examination, he said.
“You can’t apply for an order giving title to the road to anyone until facts are determined by trial,” said Kalikow.
Lin said he couldn’t comment on the case because it is pending litigation.