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News: 12/01/2010

Trail dispute spawns lawsuit

Santa Rosa is suing Village Oaks and Star of the Valley over signs in a disputed public right of way.

A long-simmering dispute over an access trail between Annadel State Park and Oakmont reached court on Nov. 4 when the City of Santa Rosa filed suit to have a homeowner association remove “No Bicycles” signs from a disputed public easement.

So far, the Village Oaks Homeowners Association (VOHA) hasn’t tried to physically block cyclists from the trail, so the suit will proceed like any other – slowly. But proceed it will, unless so far unyielding parties arrive at some compromise, which seems unlikely, given the history of the dispute.

The physical easement at issue affects a group of 61 homes, a subdivision of Wild Oak, which itself is separate from Oakmont, although they are all results of Henry Trione’s family land development projects in the 1960s and 1970s, part of which included the formation of Annadel State Park, a treasured park serving the county’s most populated area.

It is the language of the public easement recorded with the county in 1980 that is at the heart of the issue. The final language permits only pedestrians and emergency vehicles. However, there is plenty of room to argue that both county and state governments – and even the original developers – were insisting that a public right of way running through the subdivision between Annadel and Highway 12 allow for pedestrians, equestrians and bicyclists.

The 20-foot-wide public easement runs from the end of Channel Drive in Annadel (just before the horse trailer parking lot), along Timber Springs Drive (which is already 60 percent narrower than most streets), and then along 1,200 feet of trail with a five-foot wide paved path that drops into Oakmont’s Stone Bridge Drive at Star of the Valley Catholic Church, just before the polo fields at Wild Oak.

Further complicating the issue, Star of the Valley built a handicapped parking lot straddling the easement. The church complains that packs of speeding cyclists are endangering handicapped members going to church.

The City of Santa Rosa offered no reasons why the parking lot was permitted to be built over a public easement, and the church’s attorney did not respond to messages.

Joseph LaVigne is adamant that bicycles are no part of the public easement. The feisty president of the VOHA finds the City’s interpretation of the easement “preposterous” and has been working for years to get them to explore alternate bike routes.

Alternate suggestions include routing bikes through a privately owned RV storage facility or around the water treatment plant further up Channel Drive. Neither option has proved attractive to the City.

Up until 2005, there didn’t seem to be much of a problem. LeVigne said it was a 2005 map published by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition (SCBC) that led to much heavier bicycle traffic, a contention flatly rejected by SCBC Executive Director Christine Culver.

“That trail has been used for years,” Culver said. “It was on published city maps long before then. One of the first rides of the Santa Rosa Cycling Club was a large group ride.” Culver does admit that there are more people riding bicycles than ever before. “The map came up because people want places to ride.”

The “No Bicycles” signs were put up in 2008 and raised the temperature of riders and city officials alike. The conflict escalated further after someone tore the signs down in August of that year, just before the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Board met to consider the city’s developing Master Pedestrian and Bike Plan, which shows the easement accommodating bikes and horses as well as walkers.

At that meeting, then VOHA president William McClintock demanded the city come up with an alternate route, saying there were too many bicycles using the path, posing safety issues for residents. He also claimed that Timber Springs Drive is privately owned and that passage is by permission.

Culver applauds the City for pushing the issue. “I think it’s important to preserve the public right of way on that easement. That was the intent and I think it is absolutely essential that it stays open to the public.”

For the City’s part, City Attorney Caroline Fowler said that further negotiations seemed futile.

“We’ve reached the end of exploring a resolution to this,” she said. “We were unsuccessful in coming to a mutually agreeable resolution.”

Bad manners have undoubtedly led to some of the hard feelings of Village residents who use the easement to walk. Cyclists, especially groups of cyclists moving at a good clip have startled the mostly elderly, many of whom are hard of hearing.

The narrow path from Stone Bridge is a particular hazard, barely wide enough to accommodate two people walking side by side, much less multiple bicycles or horse riders. The handicapped lot adds chaos to the mix when it is in use.

Fowler said that the city would consider widening that portion of the easement.

When Henry Trione’s sons Victor and Mark started putting together the Wild Oak subdivision in 1975, their first map was rejected by Santa Rosa without a provision for an easement for bikes, pedestrians and horses. The map they filed in 1977 reflected this kind of path, as did the final map filed in 1979. It was the easement recorded with the County Recorder’s Office in 1980 that omitted bicycles and horses.

The city is suing the Village Oaks and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Santa Rosa to make them take the signs down and pay for legal costs. VOHA and the church have until Dec. 4 to file a response. No one thinks the case will get to court before the middle of next year and might take longer to resolve.

So far, nobody’s blinked.


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