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News: 02/15/2015

Tentative settlement in bike path dispute

After five years of litigation over whether bicyclists and equestrians have the right to use a path and easement that cuts through the private Santa Rosa subdivision – The Villages at Wild Oak, near Annadel State Park – both sides may have reached a settlement to resolve the issue out of court.

Michael Scott, attorney for The Villages at Wild Oak, and Caroline Fowler, attorney for the City of Santa Rosa, both confirmed that a tentative settlement has been proposed, but declined to elaborate since the details are still being worked out. The Villages at Wild Oak Homeowners Association President Joe LaVigna indicated he was happy with the City’s response to the terms The Villages put forward.

Once the terms of a settlement are agreed upon by both parties, LaVigna will take it before the HOA for approval and Fowler will take it before the Santa Rosa City Council for approval. Star of the Valley Catholic Church, a third party in the litigation, will also need to approve the settlement.

The central issue in this case – and no doubt the settlement – revolves around signs installed by The Villages along the path. The dispute over public use of the path and easement along Wild Oak Drive (between Annadel State Park and Oakmont Drive) escalated in 2008 after the subdivision posted signs reading “No Trespassing” and “No Bicycles” along the path without City permit. In August of that year, someone tore the signs down, just before the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Board met to consider developing the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, which shows the easement accommodating bikes, horses and walkers.

In 2010, the City sued The Villages claiming it was obstructing the 2,300-foot-long easement that was established for public access of pedestrians, equestrians and bicycles 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.

In January 2015, Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum agreed with that argument, subsquently striking down the City’s counter that amendments to the scope of the easement between 1977 and 1980 were essentially a “mistake” by city staff and done without proper authority.

Daum also disposed of more than a dozen other issues raised by the city’s attorneys, including the legality of the anti-bike signs 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.

At the beginning of February, it looked as though the city was still 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 Judge Daum’s earlier ruling left the city with the challenge of showing that enough people used the path for “transportation” (excluding all recreational users) to have established an implied easement.

At the Feb. 6 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.

City Attorney Caroline Fowler confirmed that a March 24 court date has been set for the parties “to advise the court that the settlement has been concluded.”

However, LaVigna is optimistic that they won’t need that much time. “I don’t see we’re going to go that far in time. There are really minor things outstanding and I feel we will resolve this in short order.” LaVigna said it appears to him that for the first time the city wants to be done with this and he appreciates what appears to be an honest attempt to resolve the matter.

Based on past arguments, if The Villages gets its way in the settlement, bikes and horses using the easement through Wild Oak will be considered to be trespassing. That means cyclists may have to walk their bicycles through the subdivision, find an alternate route along Sonoma Hwy. or use the bridge near the now-defunct water treatment plant (abandoned by the City of the Santa Rosa) that connects Channel Drive, across another private easement, to Stone Bridge Road in Oakmont.

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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