Bicycles barred, case closed on battle over Wild Oak path
City has nothing to show after six-year legal battle with homeowner’s association
Sarah C. Phelps
After a long, fruitless legal battle over whether or not bicyclists have the right to use a public easement through a private subdivision that borders Oakmont near Trione-Annadel State Park, the City of Santa Rosa has withdrawn it’s latest appeal, closing the chapter for good on the six-year lawsuit and leaving the city with nothing but a hefty legal bill.
On Thursday, Dec. 22, the Santa Rosa City Attorney’s office announced it had settled its lawsuit against the Villages at Wild Oak and its homeowners association, agreeing to pay most of the Villages’ attorney’s fees, amounting to $182,739. Earlier, in 2013, the city was also slapped with a $39,810 fine for filing a “frivolous appeal” against the Villages. The city did not track the number of attorneys who worked the case nor the number of hours they put in, so a total figure spent on the case is not available.
With this settlement, the city is acquiescing to the final court ruling made by Judge Eliot Daum in January 2016, that only pedestrians and emergency vehicles have the right to use the 2,300-foot-long easement through the Villages at Wild Oak community, which borders Oakmont near Trione-Annadel State Park, effectively barring public use by cyclists and equestrians. The Villages at Wild Oak had long argued that the developers of the private community, Victor and Mark Trione, never intended to establish a right of access by the bicycling public over the former railroad line that connects White Oak Drive to Channel Drive through the subdivision.
Additionally, the ruling dismissed the city’s allegations that posting of “No Trespassing” and “No Bicycles” signs by the Villages violated city ordinances and permitting requirements, and encroached on city property.
The dispute over public use of the easement escalated in 2008 after the Villages at Wild Oak posted the “No Bicycles” signs along the pathway frequented by pedestrians and cyclists. Some residents claimed that a surge in large groups of cyclists using the easement was becoming hazardous to pedestrians. In August of that year, someone tore the signs down, just before the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board met to consider developing the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, which currently shows the easement accommodating cyclists, equestrians and pedestrians.
Under the new settlement, the city will have to amend its 2010 Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan to delete all depictions referring to public bicycle use on the easement.
In 2010, the City of Santa Rosa sued the Villages claiming it was obstructing the easement that was established for public access of pedestrians, equestrians and cyclists by the Santa Rosa Planning Commission in 1977, when they approved the tentative map for the subdivision.
The Villages argued that in 1980 an easement deed and final map were recorded stating the easement was for “public pedestrian and emergency vehicle access,” with no mention of bicycles or equestrians. The city countered that amendments narrowing the scope of the easement between 1977 and 1980 were essentially a “mistake” by city staff and done without proper authority.
In January 2015, Judge Daum agreed with the Villages that “The Triones [the developers] granted to the City of Santa Rosa a ‘twenty-foot easement for the purpose of Public Pedestrian and Emergency Vehicle Access’ ... There is no mention in the granted easement of any intention to also grant easement rights for bikes and horses.”
Despite this, it looked as though the city still wasn’t about to give up and was going to take the case to trial in an effort to argue that the public had a “prescriptive easement” across the property, a legal right of way created by prolonged, unchallenged use. But at the Feb. 6, 2015 trial date, both parties reported a tentative settlement to Judge Daum, dismissing their respective lawsuits and indicating the city’s desire to settle outstanding issues with the Villages. However, after mediation proved unsuccessful, both parties returned to court in January 2016, receiving Daum’s final ruling falling in favor of the Villages at Wild Oak.
The Villages at Wild Oak Association Board of Directors said they are pleased with the settlement and hope cyclists will respect the court’s ruling and use alternative routes or walk their bicycles through the easement. Going forward, the Board of Directors will monitor the use of the easement and consider what, if any, changes should be made to existing signage, said Villages at Wild Oak Association President William McClintock. Cyclists have continued to ride through the subdivision during the six-year litigation, blatantly ignoring the current “No Bicycles” signs.
McClintock said that with the end of litigation, the Board of Directors and a committee of homeowners “can now focus on identifying those actions that will help publicize that the easement is not available for bicycling.” These actions will include notifying the cycling community of the agreement with the city, monitoring the city’s progress in revising the Santa Rosa Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, and notifying smartphone cycling apps that routes which go through the Villages should be removed.
“As always, the Villages welcomes use of the Pedestrian Easement by runners and joggers as well as those using either manual or motorized wheelchairs,” said McClintock.
It’s still unclear if the City of Santa Rosa will seek an alternative route for cyclists through the area to avoid sending them out onto the shoulder of Highway 12 between Melita Road and Oakmont Drive. City attorneys did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
The City of Santa Rosa owns the defunct wastewater treatment plan property near Stonebridge Road in Oakmont, which also includes a bridge leading to Channel Drive. City staff is currently reviewing options to establish permanent public access through that property, but has not yet submitted a plan of action to the Santa Rosa City Council.