By Marcy Stamper
A struggle over a 7.6-mile stretch of French Creek Road hinges on whether the fact that the road has been consistently used since the early 20th century makes it a public road, or whether the fact that adjoining property owners have gated the road — preventing others from traveling on it — means that it belongs to those property owners.
Plaintiffs Gamble Land and Timber and Cascade Holdings Group filed an initial lawsuit against Okanogan County in Okanogan County Superior Court in March, charging that Okanogan County claimed the road in 1955 without any right to the property. The suit seeks to acquire ownership of the road by quiet title, a process that would unearth any other claims of ownership.
In June, Gamble and Cascade Holdings filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that the fact that the road segment has been gated for at least 60 years confirms that it is not a public right-of-way. In fact, their motion states that the road portion in question doesn’t even have a name, so they call it only “Private Access Road.”
The Okanogan Open Roads Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping backcountry roads, has intervened in the lawsuit, contending that more than 100 years of public travel on the road makes it a county road. They point to a state law that says any road used by the public for at least 10 years is a county road.
The coalition filed its own motion for summary judgment a week after Gamble’s, supplemented by 89 exhibits they say outline the extensive history of the road as a public thoroughfare. The exhibits contain maps from as early as 1904 and sworn affidavits by area residents dating back 75 years attesting to their consistent use of the road.
Okanogan County responded to Gamble Land’s initial lawsuit in March, characterizing the charges as “vague and incomplete” and saying the plaintiffs’ claims were not within the statue of limitations. In a brief response to the motions for summary judgment filed at the end of June, the county states that it will abide by the decision of the court.
To the roads coalition, the status of French Creek Road has long been clear. “The character of French Creek Road as a county road has been redundantly established so many times in so many ways and documented so thoroughly in contemporaneous maps, in the public record, and by incontrovertible sworn statements of use … that this court should have no difficulty ruling at this time on the character of the road,” writes attorney Barnett Kalikow for the coalition.
In his brief, Kalikow cites historical texts and maps going as far back as 1888 that describe the consistent use of a road that still follows the same route between Pateros and Silver, the first European settlement in the Methow Valley.
Kalikow also cites a petition filed by a property owner in 1955 seeking to vacate the road, which the county commissioners rejected because “it would not be in the best interest of the public,” according to proceedings of the commissioners’ meeting attached as an exhibit.
Other exhibits submitted by the coalition include a 1969 letter from the county’s prosecuting attorney ordering a citizen to remove the barricade he installed on the road, which the prosecutor describes as “a public road … acquired by the County.”
In contrast to the state law cited by the Open Roads Coalition, the Gamble filing cites a “non-user statute,” which says that any road that remains unopen to public use for at least five years after a county states its intention to establish the road is vacated through lapse of time. They also assert that the county has never maintained the road.
Gamble’s filing also points to Okanogan County’s road log and map from 1955, which it describes as containing a “plague of inaccuracies.”
“Okanogan County has a road problem,” writes attorney Nick Lofing for Gamble Land. He attributes the problem to the “improper, illegal and defunct” 1955 ordinance. Among other problems, the 1955 ordinance claims roads on the National Forest and Colville Reservation, as well as roads with large trees in the roadbed and some under water, says Lofing.
Gamble also asserts that the members of the Open Roads Coalition don’t have standing to intervene in the lawsuit because none of them live on the section of road in question. Moreover, while the coalition members state that they have long used the road for travel and to reach public lands, and that they rely on it as a means of escape from a natural disaster, “No person’s interest in recreation and securing an emergency contingency grants them standing to assert an ownership interest in the private property of another,” writes Lofing.
Roots of quiet title lawsuit
The motion to settle the matter by quiet title — a method traditionally used in disputes such as the location of a property line — was necessitated when the plaintiffs discovered during a title search that a final order had not been entered by the county after a 2009 dispute over the road.
In that matter, adjacent property owners Jim Weddle and Gebbers Farms petitioned the county to vacate part of French Creek Road. The county commissioners initially ordered that a gate on the road be removed because of the road’s importance as an escape route. About two months later, the commissioners modified their order, saying that the county only had jurisdiction over a short stretch of the road, allowing the gate to remain.
That change followed a recommendation by Okanogan County’s chief civil deputy at the time, who said the commissioners’ order to unlock the gate had been based on incomplete information. The county’s attorney said he had been contacted by attorneys for the property owners, who presented legal documents and deeds.
The case has been assigned to Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson. No hearings have been scheduled, but attorneys for Gamble Land have issued summonses for depositions of county staff and coalition members.