Vacation of road in Chiliwist sought by Gamble Land
By Marcy Stamper
The Washington State Supreme Court has denied a request to review a challenge to the closure of Three Devils Road, ending the lawsuit and allowing 3 miles of the remote road to be gated. The gated section traverses land owned by Gamble Land and Timber, which petitioned Okanogan County in 2015 to vacate the road to protect its adjacent property from trespassing and vandalism. The court’s denial was issued Wednesday (Aug. 2).
The Chiliwist Residents and Friends challenged the former board of county commissioners’ decision to close the road in June 2015, contending that Three Devils Road is an important escape route in the event of a wildfire and that they also used it to reach public lands.
While most of the road goes through Gamble Land’s private property, it connects with U.S. Forest Service roads that go to the South Summit on the Loup and links to routes into the Methow Valley.
The high court did not provide a reason for declining to hear the case. The one-page order from the court simply stated that a special department of five justices considered the petition for review and unanimously denied it.
In their April 2017 petition to the high court to hear the case, the Chiliwist group said the Three Devils case raised several significant constitutional issues. By closing the road, the county commissioners failed to protect the Chiliwist residents’ safety, life and property, wrote their attorney, Barnett Kalikow. Vacating the road also violated a constitutional prohibition on counties’ giving property to an individual or company, they said.
But lawyers for Gamble Land cited safety as a reason the high court shouldn’t take the case. Using Three Devils Road in an emergency could endanger people, since it can be impassable or gated at the west end, wrote their attorney, Thomas O’Connell.
Gamble Land submitted evidence that the road received little use, as evidenced by vegetation growing in the roadway. They said the company, not the county, had performed all road maintenance.
In urging the justices not to hear the case, Okanogan County also pointed to safety issues, saying the road is “dangerous and subject to unanticipated closures,” wrote then-Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Albert Lin.
Gamble Land also argued that the Chiliwist group didn’t have standing to bring the lawsuit because none of them live on the road and they didn’t use it to reach their property.
Two conservation groups, the Methow Valley Citizens Council and Futurewise, filed friend-of-the-court briefs this June, urging the court to hear the case. They argued that determining whether safety is a fundamental right — particularly in a wildfire-prone rural area with few roads — was a matter of substantial public interest.
History of the case
In Okanogan County Superior Court, a visiting judge ruled in September 2015 that the county commissioners had the prerogative to close Three Devils Road as part of their management of the county’s road network.
Vacating the road was a “political decision,” one the courts don’t have jurisdiction to review, said visiting Douglas County Superior Court Judge John Hotchkiss. People unhappy with the commissioners’ decision could turn to the ballot box, he said.
The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision in March 2017, agreeing that the commissioners had the authority to close the road.
The Chiliwist group had previously asked the high court in November 2015 to hear the case and bypass the Court of Appeals, but that request was also denied.
Both lower-court judges rejected arguments by the Chiliwist Residents that the county commissioners had violated the appearance-of-fairness doctrine by meeting with representatives of Gamble Land and the company’s family members.
The Chiliwist residents plan to meet later this month to discuss where they go from here, said Ruth Hall, their president.
“My clients are pleased to see the Three Devils Road issue finally come to a close. The Supreme Court’s decision refusing to review the Court of Appeals decision is confirmation that the Court of Appeals ruling was correct and in accordance with the law,” said O’Connell, the attorney for Gamble Land and Timber, by email. “As a result of this decision, Three Devils Road has now been posted ‘Private Road Closed.’”
Three Devils Road had remained open during the two-and-a-half years of litigation, through a bond posted by the Chiliwist residents, but the road was closed by locked gates last week after the court issued its decision.