On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 4/1/2017
The Long and Winding Bike Path
This is a follow-up to a couple of columns from way back in the distant, misty past. It’s about a long-simmering dispute over access to a section of bike/ped trail out on the east side of Santa Rosa. I wrote the first column in September of 2008, then chased that article with an update a few months later, included in a catch-all column called More Loose Ends.
I think it’s worth revisiting the original columns to get the full back story. The first one, in particular, includes some philosophical observations about civility and discourse (in that moment just before Barrack Obama was elected President) that seem bitterly ironic in light of what has become of civility and discourse in our current world.
But in case you aren’t inclined to do all that dumpster diving through my old columns, I’ll try for a brief summary here. A short section of paved trail has, for many years, linked the city of Santa Rosa with public roads to the east. The trail connects Annadel State Park on its west end with an extensive senior housing community on its east end. The trail, running across the property of the housing subdivision, was included in the original plans for the community as an easement for public use. It was a condition of the acceptance of the permit to develop the property.
At some point in 2008, the principals in the homeowners’ association for the senior community decided they didn’t want to share the path with cyclists. Pedestrians, okay, but not those rampaging, discourteous bikers. After protracted negotiations between the cycling community, the City of Santa Rosa, and the homeowners’ representatives finally broke down without any happy resolution, they put up “bicycles prohibited” signs. Eventually the matter ended up in court.
As I reported in my Loose Ends follow-up, it appeared at one point that the city had the upper hand in the matter: documents surfaced from the city archives that clearly showed the path—including its use by cyclists—was a condition of the approval of the development permit. That’s about as far as I took the matter all those years ago. However, it was far from the end of the story. Subsequent findings showed that, while it may have been the intent of the original easement to include cyclists, the final, official documents drawn up by a city staffer left the words “bicyclists” or “bicycles” out of the exact wording that was eventually carved in stone.
While most fair-minded people would agree that bikes were originally included in the plans for the trail, the judge in the case had to go by the letter of the final document, which left bikes out. He had to rule in favor of the homeowners’ association. As a last-ditch, hail-mary attempt to save access to the trail, the city attorney tried to prove a prescriptive easement, based on many years of constant use by cyclists. As the Ride Director at the time for the region’s largest bike club, my assistance was solicited in the argument regarding the prescriptive easement. That attempt met with failure as well. All of this ground its way through the courts over many years, with the case being settled just last year.
The homeowners’ leadership carried the day. To pour salt into the wound, the city had to pay all the legal fees as well as a hefty fine for mishandling the case. To say that the city’s legal staff did not cover itself in glory would be a bit of an understatement. It was a defeat for the city and a big slap in the face for the cycling community. (That said, although the signs remain in place, the homeowner gang has yet to figure out a way to physically prevent cyclists from riding through. They have talked about locked gates and rent-a-cops, but nothing has been done. It’s possible that, having won their day in court, they may be content to just let the signs be their sole preventive measure…more token than substantive.)
Lately, there has been a new development in the story, something of a happy ending. I will get to that presently. But before I do, I want to reflect on one aspect of this case that caught my attention. When I was working with the attorney on the matter, I asked what had become of the city clerk who wrote the official wording upon which the whole case was decided: could he be asked to testify as to his intent in writing the document as he did? The attorney replied that the guy is now “pushing up daisies.” So we’ll never know why he left the crucial word “bicyclists” out of his draft.
That put me in mind of another case involving incorrect or inaccurate wording in a City of Santa Rosa ordinance concerning cyclists. I covered this story in the July, 1996 issue of the Santa Rosa Cycling Club newsletter. That predates any digital archive I have. I can’t offer a link to the article, so once again I have to summarize. On March 26, 1996, the City Council amended Chapter 9-22 of the City Code to prohibit the use of “Bicycles, Skateboards, Scooters, Roller Skates, In-Line Skates, or Similar Devices” in shopping centers or on sidewalks.
While skateboarders and their ilk were prohibited in parking lots as well as on the sidewalks or pedestrian malls of shopping centers, cyclists were specifically exempted with regard to parking lots. They were to stay off sidewalks and malls, but could use the parking lots to get to the front doors of whatever stores they needed to reach. That all made approximately good sense. However, some anonymous clerk on city staff screwed things up again. The way the ordinance was to be implemented was for the owners of the shopping malls to place signs at the entrances to their parking lots, with the wording to be placed on the signs spelled out precisely in the ordinance. And guess what? Bicycles were the first thing mentioned as being prohibited.
In spite of the exact wording in the ordinance clearly giving bikes a pass for parking lots, the signs that began popping up all over the city said No Bikes! It came to a head when the private security staff at a Raley’s shopping center started hassling cyclists who rode into the parking lot. I wrote a tart letter to Raley’s headquarters in Sacramento and they immediately apologized and said that had never been their intent. They instructed their rent-a-cops to back off. I figured the next step would be to get the city to rewrite the amendment so that the language specified for the signs would comply with the actual intent of the ordinance. All they needed to do was delete the one word “Bicyclists” from the ordinance and white out the word on any signs already in place…a minor chore but not unduly burdensome. Cooperative noises were made at the City Council level, but in the end, nothing was done. 20+ years later, the same signs are still there.
Do you suppose it was the same mid-level pencil pusher in the bowels of City Hall who made the mistakes on both this ordinance and the one for the bike path easement? Did he have some ax to grind about bikes? Was there a secret agenda from on high, with this guy just following orders? Or was he just sloppy? The result was the same in each case: with the word “bicyclists” left in one document and left out of the other, bikes were left out in the cold, legally speaking.
By the way, did you happen to see the article recently about how one missing comma from a sentence in a legal document cost a company over ten million dollars? When it comes to legal documents, accuracy matters. Sloppy or vague doesn’t cut it.
The latest news to pop up in our local paper concerns an alternate route for getting from Santa Rosa (via the state park) through the nearby residential development and onward to all the nice roads to the east. In my first column, I mentioned two other paths leading from the state park which bypassed the portion of the development with the no-bikes curmudgeons. One of the paths has since been completely fenced off by the owner of the property across which it passed. In that case, no easement ever existed and apparently the owner had the right to close it off.
The other one is still in use and has become pretty much the preferred route for cyclists unwilling to ride past the No Bikes signs in the subdivision. This one includes a little bridge across a creek. The bridge used to have bollards at each end that were so close together you had to get off your bike and lift it through. In fact, I doubt any really obese people could have squeezed through. However, those posts were removed some years ago—I don’t know who did it or who made that decision—making it much more accessible and practical.
The bridge leads to a short section of paved road that used to provide access to a city water treatment plant. As far as I can understand this, the water treatment plant is now defunct and whatever easement might have existed for the little road has lapsed. There is a No Trespassing sign in place, although it is universally ignored by all the cyclists and hikers who use the link between the residential neighborhood on one side of the creek and the state park on the other.
Now a new path has been completed that bypasses the little bit of road, taking a slightly more circuitous—but pleasant—meander to reach the public roads in the neighborhood. This appears to forestall any problems that might arise if the owner of the little bit of road ever decided to gate it. (It’s the same property owner who fenced off the other access point.)
I rode over and checked out the new path the other day. It’s still closed until all the finishing touches are in place, but I walked out onto it and looked it over. It’s not paved but is compacted gravel (with a ruddy tint, like the lava rock quarried in Eastern Oregon). It will be fine for bikes, although as long as the little paved road remains open, I would prefer to use it. Bottom line though is that, regardless of whatever happens with the grumps in the senior community and any efforts they may make to physically block that path, and regardless of whether this other road is gated by its property owner, there will be a way through.
The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, in coordination with the city, and with help from volunteers, has taken the lead on putting this new path on the map. A tip of the old chapeau to everyone who pitched in on making this happen.
Had all of the assorted access paths been eventually blocked, and without this new public path in place, the only alternative for heading east out of Santa Rosa would have been riding along the shoulder of busy State Highway 12. I wrote about riding that section of highway in another column from 2012: Bike Trail Dreams. I noted that experienced riders who get along with heavy traffic will ride it, but it’s no place for families or kids or the timid.
But what that column was about was a proposed bike trail adjacent to the highway. That project is slowly working its way through state and county bureaucracies. It is green-lighted and moving forward. It will be many years before they begin construction and even longer before we can put our bike tires on it, but at this point, barring some calamatous, Trumpian meltdown, it should eventually be there. When that day finally arrives, cyclists will have two decent routes for heading out of town toward the Valley of the Moon. Folks can even make a loop out of it: outward bound on one trail and back home on the other.
It has been a long time coming, but in spite of mean-spirited NIMBYs and bungling attorneys and clueless clerks, perhaps this story will finally have its happy ending.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org