Documents show road has been public since 1889
French Creek Road has been a public road for 128 years, when the road was established and formally surveyed by Okanogan County — even before Washington became a state. That claim is part of a new court filing by the Okanogan Open Roads Coalition based on recently discovered historic documents.
The filing is the latest salvo in a long-running dispute over whether the road near the town of Methow should be available for public use.
In documents filed July 1, the coalition asked Okanogan County Superior Court to dismiss the claims of adjacent landowners that a 3-mile stretch of French Creek Road is their private-access road. The coalition says that 19th- and early-20th-century maps and meticulously handwritten surveys and government documents show the road has been an important public thoroughfare along virtually the same route since 1889.
The maps and surveys surfaced this spring through a records request made to Okanogan County. Previous searches by the county didn’t produce these documents, according to Natalie Kuehler, attorney for the open roads coalition. “These documents are a game-changer,” she said in an interview last week.
Although the road has had various names over the years, including Methow Valley Road, Methow County Road, and Bald Knob Road, its location has been remarkably consistent for 128 years, according to a report by Twisp-based surveyor Bill Tackman, one of the documents in this month’s court filing.
The documents also include a comprehensive review of French Creek Road and the process for establishing a public road in Washington by Winthrop-based historian Richard Hart.
The coalition filed the new documents now “to avoid any further delay as another fire season is imminent and the continued closure of the road to traffic creates significant risks to public safety,” wrote Kuehler in her motion to dismiss the case.
“Okanogan County failed to act despite the fact that it at all times had in its possession evidence establishing that the Road has been a public road for over 128 years,” she wrote.
History of case
Although disputes over the road go back at least half a century, the current lawsuit was filed by Gamble Land & Timber and Cascade Holdings Group in March 2017.
In a May 2018 ruling in that case, Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson agreed with Gamble and Cascade Holdings that the county had never established the roadway as a county road. But Rawson said there are questions of fact regarding the road’s status and scheduled a trial in February 2020.
In 2009, Gamble and Cascade had filed a petition to vacate this same stretch of French Creek Road. The commissioners denied the request, saying the road was important to the public.
But shortly thereafter, the commissioners received a report that an “attorney for the Gebbers” was preparing a quiet title action for the portion of the road owned by the county, said Kuehler in her memorandum to the court. After receiving that report, the commissioners passed a new resolution saying they had no knowledge as to whether that section of French Creek Road was public, she said.
Gamble Land and Timber is one of a number of companies owned by members of the Gebbers family, which has operated orchards and cattle ranches for generations, according to the Gebbers Farms website. They have extensive property holdings in Okanogan and neighboring counties, according to records of the Okanogan County assessor.
The current lawsuit grows out of that failed 2009 vacation effort. Gamble and Cascade Holdings filed the lawsuit to quiet the title (settle ownership claims) to the road. The quiet-title action was necessitated when the plaintiffs discovered during a title search that a final order had not been entered by the county after the commissioners refused to vacate French Creek Road in 2009, according to Gamble’s 2017 court filing.
The open roads coalition is a citizens’ group that intervened in the case to defend the public status of the road after the county said it didn’t intend to defend the road but would abide by the court’s decision.
In May, Okanogan County hired NCW Land Surveying to survey the road to see if the historic survey information for the Methow Valley Road matches the road currently known as Texas Creek Road and French Creek Road, according to Okanogan County Engineer Josh Thomson.
The survey will compare the present-day road with surveys and records conducted between 1891 and 1910. NCW Land Surveying will map a final road alignment and provide an “opinion of road location relative to historic and current roads,” according to the scope of work. The work is to be completed by the end of this year.
Gamble Land and Cascade Holdings may also hire a surveyor, according to David Gecas, chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney for Okanogan County.
Okanogan County commissioners have repeatedly denied requests to privatize French Creek Road through the vacation process. They found that closing the road would be contrary to the public interest, according to court records.
The failed 2009 vacation effort is another reason the court should dismiss the case, Kuehler contends. Because Gamble and Cascade previously sought to close the road through vacation, they cannot now use quiet-title litigation to privatize it, but should have appealed the vacation ruling right away, she said.
The documents filed in court include letters and testimony from past vacation hearings in 1955, 1965 and 2009 when hundreds of people submitted comments to the county attesting to their use of the road.
In 1965, the county engineer said the road was “easily traveled by passenger car.” The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) submitted a report opposing the vacation because the road was used for hauling supplies, fire control, and hunting and fishing. A petition opposing the vacation stated that “closing of this road by a couple of farmers who own but a small portion of the land involved does not seem right.” The commissioners visited the road and unanimously denied the vacation.
Kuehler also points to a “strikingly similar” case decided last year by the Montana Supreme Court. In that case, property owners petitioned the county to vacate a road and illegally gated it, saying the public road ended at their private property. The court said the property owners had to appeal the vacation and couldn’t pursue a different avenue of litigation — quiet title — in a different court.
History of road
Hart’s research details the road’s history and how it came to be part of Okanogan County’s network. “On May 6, 1889, while Washington was still a Territory, the Okanogan County Commission received a petition, bond and affidavit requesting the establishment of the ‘Methow Valley Road’ as a public road,” wrote Hart. Washington became a state in November of that year. Okanogan County was created by the Washington Territorial Legislature in 1888.
One day after receiving that petition, the county commissioners appointed a surveyor to survey the route. The survey was complete by June 1 and the exact location of the road was certified. The road was declared open on Aug. 9, Hart said.
Hart said the road was a key link from the Columbia River to the Methow. “The importance of the road to Okanogan County could hardly be overstated,” he wrote. He cited county records that said more than 100 people in the upper Methow would be “virtually shut out from all communication with the outside world [through] ranges of mountains attaining high altitude and thickly studded with timber intervening between them and the Columbia River” without a good road.
Since hiring the surveyors in 1889, the county has spent money to grade and improve the road more than once. When French Creek Road was a school-bus route in the 1970s, the commissioners agreed to extra road maintenance, said Hart.
The disputed section of French Creek Road has been gated on and off over the past 50 years by adjacent property owners, according to court records. Documents show that the county commissioners ordered the property owners to remove unlawful gates on the road in 1969, 1982 and 2009.
In 1969, the commissioners gave the property owners five days to remove illegal gates so the county could grade French Creek Road as planned. The county’s assistant prosecuting attorney informed the commissioners that “this is a public road and it cannot be blocked,” according to commissioners’ minutes.
The coalition is asking the county to step in and order the gates removed to ensure people have access to as many evacuation routes as possible, said Kuehler last week. If it turns out the road is private after further litigation, the gates can go back up, she said.
Okanogan County intends to file a reply in court. There is still additional evidence coming in, said Gecas.
Gamble and Cascade Holdings have yet to file a response in court and didn’t respond to a request for comment. No date has been set for a hearing on the new motion.