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News: 02/01/2015

Wild Oak bike access challenge set back

Ruling knocks down most of Santa Rosa’s arguments

A cyclist rides his bike along the disputed pathway through The Village at Wild Oak subdivision. Photo by Jay Gamel.

A slew of arguments by the City of Santa Rosa supporting their claim that bikers and horseback riders have the right to use a pathway through a gated, private Santa Rosa subdivision were shot down by Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum in a ruling last month. Daum found little merit to the city’s claim that the omission of language regarding the bikers’ and equestrians’ right to use the path was an oversight that could be corrected by legal means.

The judge agreed that during initial negotiations in the late 1970s, the city and The Villages at Wild Oak developers Mark and Victor Trione (dba Vimark) talked about allowing bike and horse riders to use the half-mile easement along Wild Oak Drive (between Annadel State Park and Oakmont Drive), but Judge Daum ruled that the adopted easement mentions only “pedestrians and official vehicles” – and was subsequently signed off as so by knowledgeable city representatives, including the Chief Engineer, the Director of Community Development, and the City Clerk.

Daum wrote in his Jan. 20 ruling that, “The Triones 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.”

Another of the main arguments put forth by City Attorney Caroline Fowler was that the public use of the path since 1980 has established a “prescriptive easement,” a legal right of way created by prolonged, unchallenged use.

Daum cited a California civil law that specifically excludes public recreational use from establishing prescriptive easements, a public policy move to encourage private landowners to allow public use without fear of losing their land rights.

Excluding recreational users from the body of bikers using this trail means the city must show that enough people have used the trail for “transportation” to have established a prescriptive easement when the matter goes to trial.

“Judge Daum’s ruling essentially leaves only an issue of whether there is an implied dedication of an easement for other than recreational use,” Fowler said after the ruling. She has filed a request to delay the scheduled Feb. 6 trial date for another 90 days. That was to be decided on Friday, Jan. 30.

“The Bike Coalition will not be happy,” The Villages’ attorney Michael Scott said after the ruling. “It does nothing for recreational riders at all.”

However, Sonoma County Bicyle Coalition Executive Director Gary Helfrich thinks it won’t be too hard to prove that people are using the path for transportation, since transportation is defined as going to a destination. “If you ride your bike to go ride in Annadel, that’s transportation. Just like if you ride your bike to go play soccer. Otherwise, you’d have to drive your car. You aren’t driving your car recreationally.”

Helfrich said he’d like to see the City and the homeowners association (HOA) sit down and negotiate a settlement. He made the point that if the easement were made public, the City would assume responsibility for enforcement of rules. “So, if I was the HOA, I would work with the city to make a list of all the things that are considered nuisances – within reason – and get rid of them.”

“We want to see a positive outcome here. It’s not anyone versus anyone,” said Helfrich. “We are all the public here, even people in the HOA. So let’s do something in the public interest.”

Daum also disposed of more than a dozen other issues raised by the city’s attorneys, including the legality of anti-bike signs (they were put up without permits) and a parking lot built by Star of the Valley Catholic Church across the easement’s right of way, ruling against the City in almost every instance.

The conflict started in 2008 when The Villages at Wild Oak Association put up signs along the path forbidding bicycles, after members complained of harassment and endangerment (usually from packs of bicycle riders) along the narrowest part of the easement between Star of the Valley and a paved street in Wild Oak that connects to Channel Drive in Annadel State Park.

If the Wild Oak Association prevails, all bikers and equestrians, including those living in neighboring Oakmont, will have to find an alternate route or at least dismount before traversing the path to and from Annadel.


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