Judge finds no dispute over facts, rejects jurisdiction argument
French Creek Road is a public county road. In a succinct opinion issued Dec. 18, Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson granted summary judgment to Okanogan County and the Okanogan Open Roads Coalition, agreeing that there are no facts in dispute as to whether a 3-mile stretch of French Creek Road is a public county road or only private access to adjacent landowners’ property.
Okanogan County and the open roads coalition, a citizens’ group that supports public access to back roads, argued that French Creek Road had been established, surveyed and built in 1889, before Washington became a state.
Rawson provided no rationale for his decision, as telegraphed in his remarks at the Dec. 4 oral arguments that a ruling on summary judgment doesn’t require a detailed opinion.
Gamble Land and Timber and Cascade Holdings Group sued the county in 2017 to quiet the title to the road, saying 3 miles of the road are private to their adjacent property. The quiet-title process is used to settle ownership issues.
While Rawson granted summary judgment to the county and the coalition, he didn’t address specific points in their arguments.
It’s not clear exactly why Rawson agreed that there’s no factual dispute that French Creek Road is public, coalition attorney Natalie Kuehler said by email. It could have been that the road was established when the county created it in 1889, or it could have been that the road was established by public use from 1889 through 1903. Or it could have been both, she said.
Rawson rejected a separate argument by the defendants that the court didn’t have jurisdiction. The county and coalition said Gamble and Cascade Holdings should have immediately appealed a 2009 decision by the county commissioners not to vacate the road.
“We are very pleased with the court’s decision — and the county’s decision before that to support our motion for summary judgment. We appreciate all of the time so many people throughout this county have spent on this matter to make sure we were able to present the court with the all of information it needed to come to this conclusion. This was truly a community effort,” Kuehler said by email. “We hope that the county will now act promptly to order the existing gates to be removed so that this public road is made accessible to the public again.”
Okanogan County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Gecas acknowledged that there weren’t many details in Rawson’s ruling, but said he couldn’t comment while litigation is pending.
The coalition and the county provided the court with recently discovered documents, including the 1889 survey filed with the county auditor. They also submitted analyses by two independent surveyors who compared the current route of the road to historic maps and descriptions.
Gamble and Cascade Holdings argued that French Creek Road was never properly created as a county road. They said there’s no proof the road was used right away by the public.
The disputed section of French Creek Road, about 5 miles from Highway 153, has been gated on and off over the past 50 years by adjacent property owners, according to court records. The plaintiffs contend that the road has been abandoned because the only people who travel the section beyond the gates are the private property owners.
In addition to the plaintiffs’ property, there is considerable state land beyond the gate.
In March 2018, Rawson agreed with Gamble and Cascade Holdings that the county had never established the road. But he said there were questions as to whether the public’s use of the road made it public. The surveys and maps discovered since then apparently settled questions for Rawson, Kuehler said.
Rawson denied the coalition’s request for legal fees from the county. The coalition intervened in the case a few months after it was filed because the county had taken little action to defend the road, saying it would instead abide by the court’s decision. When additional historic documents came to light this year, the county began actively defending the road.
Thomas O’Connell, the attorney for Gamble and Cascade Holdings, didn’t return a call for comment.
The plaintiffs have 30 days to appeal the ruling to the state Court of Appeals. They can also ask Rawson to reconsider his opinion.