September 1, 2008

Ruling bars road to landlocked property

By Laura Brown
The Union

Bitney Springs Road.

Land trusts across the state are looking at a court decision in Nevada County and the precedents it could set for conservation easements elsewhere.

In a tentative ruling, a county judge has decided in favor of the Nevada County Land Trust and landowners Bill and Anna Trabucco in a civil lawsuit brought by adjacent landowner Ian Garfinkel.

But the ruling does not appear to decide between each party’s core issue: Garfinkle argued old roads crossed the Trabucco property, and as public byways, he wanted to use them to access his landlocked parcel. The Trabuccos argued a road on their land would violate their conservation easement, which preserves their ranch as agricultural land in perpetuity.

Rather, the Aug. 22 decision by Superior Court Judge Robert Tamietti is that the roads portrayed on Garfinkle’s maps cannot be proven to be on the Trabucco property.

Land easements such as the Trabuccos’ began about 30 years ago, said Darla Guenzler, executive director of the California Council of Land Trusts. The group represents 86 land trusts statewide.

“These early cases are especially important. That’s why our organization is watching carefully so good rules are created,” Guenzler said.

If developers successfully overturn easements in court, others could find it worthwhile to spend money to break down the protections, she said.

“So far, the land trust community has been prevailing very strongly,” Guenzler said.
To Garfinkel, the case is about gaining access to Trabucco’s property on what he said is a pre-existing road.

Garfinkel owns several properties with road access problems. He filed his lawsuit to gain a road easement traversing a corner of the Trabuccos’ property to his 160 acres of adjoining land. He purchased the property three years ago.

Garfinkel based his case on maps showing roads dating to the 1850s, access he said existed for 150 years prior to 2004, when the conservation easement was established.

But the two maps, county tax records and expert testimony was not enough evidence to prove that the roads ever crossed the Trabuccos’ property, Tamietti ruled.

Throughout the case, Garfinkel assured a road easement would only be used by his family and not pave the way to development.

Cattle rancher Jim Gates leases the Trabuccos’ property for his business, Nevada County Free Range Beef, and attention to the case has been regularly discussed in e-mails sent to members of the Local Food Coalition, in the BriarPatch newsletter to members and in other groups.

The tentative ruling is expected to become final soon unless Garfinkel’s lawyer, King McPherson, can find issues raised in trial that were not included in Tamietti’s decision, said land trust attorney Allan Haley.

“We’re obviously pleased with the tentative decision, but there’s still more proceedings to go before there’s a final judgment,” Haley said.

In his tentative decision, Tamietti ruled in favor of the defendants in all eight causes of action that were alleged in Garfinkel’s complaint. Garfinkel said he won’t fight the decision because it’s become a financial burden.

“It really appears it was a predetermined decision,” Garfinkle said. “You can’t fight that.”

Garfinkel alleges a “smear campaign” spread against him by large land owners, whom he called “good old boys,” influenced Tamietti’s decision.

“The losers are society and the rule of law and everything we’re based on,” Garfinkel said.

The outcome of the case will make it more difficult for property owners to gain access to the county’s landlocked properties, Garfinkel said.

“There are a lot of parcels that are landlocked. Access is everything. If you can’t get to the property, what do you do with it?” he asked.

During the court trial, 23 witnesses were called during eight days of testimony, 455 exhibits were admitted, and the court and counsel made two site visits to the disputed properties located off of Bitney Springs Road.

Nevada County Land Trust members said they are excited by the judge’s decision, because it will strengthen the legality of land easements if made final, said Executive Director Marty Coleman-Hunt.

“It’s not just a local issue. It is a national issue,” she said.