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Bicyclists can be banned from path near Oakmont, judge rules

Santa Rosa’s five-year legal battle to preserve bicyclists’ access to a disputed path through a neighborhood near Oakmont has hit what may be its final roadblock.

Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum issued a final judgment Jan. 7 in favor of the Villages at Wild Oak, agreeing that an easement through the quiet, gated community near Annadel State Park is for pedestrians and emergency vehicles only, not bicyclists, as the city insisted.

The judgment formalizes previous rulings against the city and was sought by the association after settlement talks between the two sides broke down last year.

“The city’s lawsuit, as far as I’m concerned, didn’t have any basis in law,” said the association’s attorney, Michael Scott. “We think the whole thing was drummed up as kind of a land grab by the city.”

Scott said he will now ask the court to award him legal fees in the case. City Attorney Caroline Fowler said she will oppose any request for a fee award and will ask the City Council if it wants to appeal Daum’s ruling.

“It’s very unfortunate for the community that access to the state park will be limited,” City Councilman Gary Wysocky said. “Now people riding their bikes through Oakmont won’t be able to go through there.”

He said he didn’t know if the council would appeal.

The easement is considered by many cyclists a far safer and more appealing option than braving busy Highway 12. It runs 2,300 feet over a former railroad bed and along a tributary of Santa Rosa Creek, linking White Oak Drive with a path that leads to Channel Drive. The path, parts of which are just a few feet wide, is popular with dog walkers and recreational cyclists.

Frustrated with groups of cyclists speeding through their quiet enclave, the association of 61 homes in 2008 installed signs that read “Private Property,” “No Trespassing” and “No Bicycles” along the pathway and private roads.

After negotiations to resolve the issue failed, the city sued in 2010, claiming the association didn’t have permits for the signs and was creating a public nuisance. It also sued the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa, claiming that the Star of the Valley Church parking lot encroaches on the public easement.

The litigation has been lengthy and acrimonious. The association has accused the city of trying to bully it and use legal tactics to draw the case out indefinitely. An appellate court agreed, slapping the city with a $40,000 fine for allegedly making frivolous legal filings. Scott called several of the city’s legal theories in the case “just bizarre.”

What happens next is not clear. Barring a successful appeal, the association will have established that it has the right to bar all bicyclists from the path if it wants to, Scott said.

But the association has not said that is its goal, nor has it outlined what actions it may take, Scott said.

The association has been less concerned about the occasional respectful, low-speed rider than the packs of spandex-clad recreational cyclists zipping across their property, Scott said.

Members have discussed a range of options, including establishing speed limits, requiring bicyclists to walk their bikes through that stretch, reconfiguring the pathway to make high-speed cycling less likely, or hiring security guards to enforce the rules, Scott said. “The Villages is considering everything we can do to keep the GranFondo riders off that property,” he said, referring to the popular annual cycling event.

Fowler said the association isn’t going to be able to block the path entirely because the pedestrian and emergency vehicle access easements are valid. She claimed that it also remains inappropriate for the “No Trespassing” signs to line the path because it’s confusing for non-cyclists, she said.

Finally, Fowler noted that it’s challenging for police to enforce trespassing complaints in that area, given more pressing demands.

“What do they expect the city is going to do? That’s not going to be a high priority,” Fowler said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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