In the latest development in a long-running legal dispute about access to French Creek Road, the Okanogan County commissioners this week voted to declare a portion of the rural road as open to the public and to oppose a pending quiet title action that seeks to have the road declared private.
At their Tuesday meeting (Oct. 22), commissioners Andy Hover and Chris Branch voted in favor of making the road open to the public and opposing the quiet title action, while Jim DeTro voted against the motion.
The commissioners’ action comes as the quiet title action filed by Gamble Land & Timber Ltd and Cascade Holdings Group L.P. continues to make its way through the legal process. The Okanogan Open Roads Coalition intervened in that lawsuit on behalf of the public after Okanogan County failed to take a position in the litigation. Natalie Kuehler, attorney for the Okanogan Open Roads Coalition, said this week that the commissioners’ action was gratifying. But she added that documents the county, and Gamble Land & Timber and Cascade Holdings Group – the private concerns seeking to have the road deemed to be private – must file on Friday may be of more import.
Those filings are required in response to extensive documentation the Okanogan Open Roads Coalition earlier submitted in Okanogan County Circuit Court, establishing that the road was not only historically open to the public but also formally declared a public road by Okanogan County in the late 1880s.
“This paves the way for the county’s response [on Friday],” Kuehler said of the commissioners’ action. “We really applaud them for taking this step.”
Kuehler said that open roads coalition will have a month to reply to whatever the county and Gamble and Cascades Holdings file on Friday.
In July, the Okanogan Open Roads Coalition cited provided documentation to the effect that French Creek Road has been a public road for 128 years, when the road was established and formally surveyed by Okanogan County. The coalition asked the court to dismiss the claims of adjacent landowners that a 3-mile stretch of French Creek Road is their private-access road. The Coalition said 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.
In July, the open roads coalition cited provided documentation to the effect that French Creek Road has been a public road for 128 years, when the road was established and formally surveyed by Okanogan County. The coalition asked the court to dismiss the claims of adjacent landowners that a 3-mile stretch of French Creek Road is their private-access road. The coalition said 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 Kuehler.
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.
Disputes over the road go back at least half a century, and 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 July 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.
The 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 contended earlier. 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 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.
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, Kuehler said earlier. If it turns out the road is private after further litigation, the gates can go back up, she said.
Parts of this story previously appeared in the Methow Valley News.