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From today's Reno Gazette-Fishwrapper

Washoe backs open public roads policy
Jeff DeLong Reno Gazette-Journal
9/28/2004 10:58 pm


A get-tough policy designed to ensure public roads can’t be blocked was approved Tuesday by Washoe County commissioners, even as some longtime landowners mounted a legal challenge over the plan.

The new ordinance was adopted in response to what county officials and outdoor activists say is a growing trend of landowners gating or otherwise blocking roads used by the public to access the backcountry, sometimes for years.

“We do have cases of people closing off roads that they don’t own,” said Commissioner Jim Galloway, who pushed for the new ordinance. “That can’t be allowed.”

The roads were identified by the county in 1999 as “presumed public roads” based on prior use, usually linked to old mining or logging activity. Under the new policy, anyone who blocks such a road could be cited for a misdemeanor violation and forced to remove any obstacles.

One road targeted by the county is a dirt track accessing the Ballardini Ranch from the end of Lone Tree Road. The county’s contention that the road is public led to a still unresolved lawsuit filed in 2003 by Minnesota-based Evans Creek LLC., which purchased the bulk of the ranch from the Ballardini family in 1998 with the intention of developing the land.

On Monday, members of the Ballardini family filed a separate lawsuit, insisting that the county’s stance on the road runs counter to their rights as owners of the remaining portion of the historic ranch.

In their lawsuit, Angela Ballardini Persigehl and Julius Ballardini said the road served as private access to houses on the land now owned by Evans Creek LLC. The road goes through pastures where cattle still graze and has had a series of locked gates along its course for many years, the suit contends.

“It is not a public road,” lawyer Joan Wright told commissioners Tuesday, adding her clients only recently learned the road was on the county’s 1999 list of presumed public roads and were not contacted by county officials over the road’s status.

Among other things, the lawsuit asks the court to declare the road is not public and that the 1999 list of roads and the county’s new ordinance are unconstitutional.

“You don’t just decide you want to go through somebody’s property,” Wright said.

Supporters of the road policy insisted it would establish a process to formally establish whether a disputed road is public or private. Five or more county residents can petition the county to open, reopen, close, relocate or abandon a public road. After a decision is made by the county commission, that decision can be appealed to the courts, officials said.

“It’s not to create roads out of thin air,” said Carl Adams of the Washoe County Backcountry Coalition, a primary supporter of the policy. “It simply establishes a process.”

Last year, Adams’ group surveyed the county’s list of presumed public roads and concluded more than a quarter of them were blocked.

Dick Benoit of the Truckee Meadows Trails Association insisted a policy is needed to ensure the problem doesn’t become much worse.

“We’re going to see more of it in the future,” Benoit said. “It’s not going to be just Ballardini Ranch.”

The lawsuits over the Ballardini road are separate from the broader legal battles over the future of the 1,019-acres west of Reno. On Aug. 27, the Washoe County Commission voted to take the land by eminent domain and preserve it as public open space.

That action followed another suit filed Aug. 12 by Evans Creek LLC, which sought to block the county’s expected efforts to seize the ranch and to protect the company’s plans to build 184 homes there.
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