Coalition urges action, but county demurs
By Marcy Stamper
The Okanogan Open Roads Coalition wants Okanogan County to compel private property owners to remove three gates the coalition says threaten public safety because the gates block escape routes.
Property owners Gamble Land and Timber and Cascade Holdings Group say the gates are on private roads and have been locked for decades to keep the public off privately-owned land.
Okanogan County is staying out of it.
Three weeks ago, Open Roads Coalition attorney Natalie Kuehler wrote to Okanogan County Prosecuting Attorney Branden Platter asking him to direct the county to “immediately remove” the gates and ensure that the landowners who erected them refrain from reinstalling them. She said access to the roads is especially important during wildfire season.
“I would submit that Okanogan County has no authority to assist the public in trespassing on my clients’ land,” said Thomas O’Connell, an attorney for Gamble Land and Cascade Holdings, in a letter to Platter three days later.
“Because the letter directly pertains to ongoing litigation, I cannot generally respond. If the County were to agree to either unlock the gates, or agree to leave them locked, the County would be making a decision within the current case that the County has elected to remain neutral in,” said Platter by email when asked by the Methow Valley News about the letters from the coalition and Gamble attorneys.
The gates, which Kuehler refers to as the Weddle, Gamble and Leecher gates, are on three connecting roads in the lower Methow Valley — French Creek Road; Texas Creek Road; and County Road 81, which goes to Leecher Mountain and connects with the Texas Creek/French Creek Road.
The Gamble gate on French Creek Road is part of a lawsuit filed last year by Gamble Land and Cascade Holdings. The two companies, who own land along the road, assert that a 3-mile section of the road is private.
The county has elected not to take a position in the ongoing litigation, said Platter. The coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping backcountry roads open, joined the suit to fight Gamble’s claim to the road.
Platter suggested the letters are just another way of litigating the issue. “The decision whether to unlock the gates or not should really be made by the Court and the parties should resolve the temporary closure of the roads within the case itself,” he said by email.
Status quo: public or private?
At the heart of the lawsuit — and the recent letters — is whether the roads are public or private until proven otherwise.
The coalition says French Creek Road has been used by the public for a century and that continuous use makes it a public road under state law. The county included the road on a log and map produced in 1955.
But Gamble Land and Cascade Holdings say it’s a private-access road.
In this road issue, political and legal aspects are intertwined, said Kuehler. If there is a dispute over a road, there are legal provisions set by state law for removing a road from the county system.
For a county road to be closed, the county must go through a formal vacation process, which includes a public hearing and an assessment by the county engineer as to whether the road is useful to the public.
Gamble Land is using the quiet-title process to resolve ownership of French Creek Road. Quiet-title is a type of ownership determination typically used between private parties, said Kuehler. She contends that it eliminates the direct political process and gives the county the option not to act.
The open roads coalition claims that these three roads have always been county roads and that neighboring landowners have gated them illegally. “Blocking the public right-of-way is illegal. The county has an obligation to work with citizens,” said Paula Mackrow, a member of the coalition.
Not only do the locked gates block evacuation routes, but they also prevent people from getting to state and federal lands, said Kuehler.
The Leecher gate on Road 81 has been there for years but, until four years ago, it was a range gate for cattle that could be opened and closed, said Mackrow. After the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire, the gate was locked. After it was destroyed several times, the property owners erected a sturdier gate that has remained locked, she said.
O’Connell contends that the court ruled this May that the Texas Creek/ French Creek Road between the Gamble and Weddle gates was never established as a county road. He says the county removed that road from its log in 2009. Road 81 has never been part of the county road system, he said.
In 2009, adjacent property owners Jim Weddle and Gebbers Farms petitioned the county to vacate part of French Creek Road near the Weddle gate. The county commissioners denied the request and ordered the property owners to remove the gate, in part because the road was an important escape route.
About two months later, the commissioners reversed their decision. The reversal came after the county’s attorney said he’d been contacted by lawyers for Weddle and Gebbers, who presented legal documents showing the county didn’t own the road beyond the gate.
For years, the Okanogan County commissioners have been trying to clean up the 1955 road list and map to make sure they match roads on the ground. In January 2017, they reviewed the status of 11 roads, including Road 81.
The county received comments both for and against closing Road 81. At the hearing, county commissioners Andy Hover and Chris Branch had questions about the history of the road and gates in the area. Members of the public asked that the county wait until after winter so that they could understand the effects of closing the roads. County Public Works staff said they would start over and research the history of the roads and whether they are useful to the county road system.
“Ultimately, I don’t think it’s useful to continue a letter-writing campaign,” said Kuehler this week about the three gates. “It’s up to the county. But they’re put on notice that there are public-safety concerns.”
She called the county’s decision not to defend the public status of French Creek Road in the current lawsuit “a political decision.” The fact that the lawsuit is pending doesn’t mean they’re private roads, she said.
But in an email, Platter said, “[The] commissioners, not my office, make the decision as to whether to participate in litigation or not and what actions the County will or will not take. My office advises the commissioners what they can do, not what they will do.”
O’Connell didn’t respond to requests seeking more information about the matter.
Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson ruled in March that more fact-finding is necessary to resolve the status of French Creek Road. A trial is scheduled in February 2020.