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Ruling a setback in Santa Rosa’s efforts to preserve bicycle route through subdivision

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Bicyclists and horseback riders do not have a documented legal right to ride through a gated community near Oakmont, a Sonoma County judge ruled this week.

Tuesday’s decision by Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum is the latest setback to Santa Rosa’s effort to preserve a popular bicycling route through the Wild Oak subdivision.

The judge found that while there was discussion during the planning process in the 1970s about extending public access to bicyclists and horseback riders, the 2,300-foot-long easement recorded on the property in 1980 permits public access for pedestrians and emergency vehicles only.

“There was no express grant of any public easement rights for bikes/horses,” Daum wrote in a 28-page ruling.

Staff were still evaluating the impact of the decision and planned to update the City Council in closed session Tuesday, City Attorney Caroline Fowler said. The city intends to ask for an extension of the Feb. 6 trial date, she said.

Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said the ruling was not favorable, but also not fatal, to the city’s case.

“The judge certainly said, ‘Hey, city, what you’ve shown me so far isn’t floating my boat,’ ” Helfrich said.

He noted that the judge allowed the city’s lawsuit against the Villages at Wild Oak Association to move forward on other grounds, however.

The city still can argue that instead of an “express” right to use the property, such as clear language on a deed, the public has a “prescriptive” easement, or a right earned through past use.

The path runs along a former railroad bed beside a tributary of Santa Rosa Creek. It runs from Channel Drive across the private Timber Springs Drive and exits onto White Oak Drive at the Star of the Valley Catholic Church. Preserving a public easement was part of the city’s discussions with members of the Trione family as they pursued development of the subdivision.

The city argues that since at least 1980, bicyclists, horse riders, hikers, walkers and runners have used the public easement openly and regularly.

The association’s attorney, Michael Scott, confirmed the judge allowed the city’s lawsuit to move forward, but said the ruling effectively bolstered the association’s position and undermined much of the city’s legal position.

“The city now only has one narrow avenue to preserve its case,” Scott said.

The dispute stretches back to 2008, when the association of 61 homes nestled against the northeastern edge of Annadel State Park installed signs that said “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” and “No Bicycles” along the pathway in response to increased use by recreational bicyclists trying to avoid busy Highway 12.

After negotiations to resolve the issue failed, the city sued the association in 2010, claiming it 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’s parking lot encroaches on the public easement.

Proving its case has proven a challenge for the city.

In 2013, the assistant city attorney handling the case, John Fritsch, was fined $40,000 for allegedly making frivolous legal filings. One judge called the filings “inexplicable,” and an appellate court said they reflected the city’s “repeated pattern of ignoring or misrepresenting relevant authority.”

Santa Rosa argues that the public approvals for the project, including by the Planning Commission and City Council, made it clear that bicyclists and equestrians were to be included in the easement. It claims that it was only because of a “mistake” on the part of city staff at the time that the easement later recorded was merely for “pedestrian and emergency vehicle access.”

The diocese, however, argues that the decision about the type of easement wasn’t final before 1980. It cites a 1979 letter from a state park superintendent to then-City Manager Ken Blackman objecting to any route that would create “private access to the park” and stating that “foot and pedestrian access” must extend to public roads.

The diocese also notes that the city engineer, planning director and city clerk at the time all signed off on the more limited deed.

Bicycle Coalition director Helfrich, a former county planner, said it has been challenging to get to the bottom of how something approved by legislative bodies gets recorded differently by staff.

“It’s like forensic planning,” Helfrich said.

But city staff doesn’t have the authority to modify conditions approved by public bodies, he said. Despite the judge’s ruling, Helfrich thinks the legislative record combined with the pattern of usage over decades makes a strong case that the public has established a public access right for bicyclists.

The reason the coalition feels so strongly about the easement is because of how dangerous the alternative route of Highway 12 is.

“It’s about not getting killed on Highway 12. That’s what this is about,” Helfrich said.

If the city loses the case, Helfrich said, he thinks the easiest solution would be for Santa Rosa to use its powers of eminent domain to clarify the easement and pay the association for the fair value of that land.

Scott, the association’s attorney, said if the homeowners prevail, they likely will take action to restrict bicyclists from using the route.

“If we win, we’ll be in the position to ask the city to begin enforcing, instead of invading, our private property rights,” he said.

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

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly located the gated community of Wild Oak. It is near Oakmont.

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