CANYON CITY - A war of words concerning Dorothy Lane, an undeveloped spur road located on the east end of Screech Alley, could escalate into a full-fledged legal battle for Grant County.
On Dec. 4, the Grant County Court voted unanimously to contact landowner Dan Stinnett and ask him to remove encroaching structures from the public access road known as Dorothy Lane. Stinnett, in a telephone interview following the County Court's decision, vowed to resist the county's demands.
"They will have to take me to court to get me to do it," he said.
Meanwhile, Dick Zickler, owner of 20 acres of pasture which is accessible by Dorothy Lane, pushed for the county to develop this roadway to its 50-foot width. He wants to see a contractor either install a culvert or build a larger bridge over the irrigation canal separating Screech Alley from his pastureland.
The county is caught in the middle.
"It is our responsibility to administer that public-access road," said Grant County Judge Dennis Reynolds, explaining the County Court's decision to contact Stinnett.
There is precedent for court action over Dorothy Lane. In 1997, Zickler took Stinnett to Grant County Circuit Court for obstructing use of the right-of-way. Zickler figured he spent $15,000 on the litigation, but he won one important decision. The judge ruled a 50-foot right-of-way existed.
"The county accepted that as an access into that property. I went to the circuit court, and Judge Cramer said that was a 50-foot access into that property," Zickler said.
However, as Stinnett pointed out, Judge William Cramer also ruled in way of mediation that the right to use the developed part of the right-of-way could not be violated by either party.
Stinnett said the case lacked closure.
"There's never been a judgment filed. The only thing that stands on record is the judge's opinion," he said, making a legal distinction.
In a court case, every detail and legal distinction could matter. For Stinnett, the stakes include his driveway, a pipe and power line leading to his garden, landscaping and a rock wall - all built on the county right-of-way, according to the court ruling.
County caught in middle
With or without a legal hearing, the two-decades-old debate over Dorothy Lane could end up costing the county or the state considerable money. The county and the Oregon Department of Transportation hope to acquire a direct access to West Bench at the west end of Screech Alley. Owner of the direct access is Zickler.
"When I'm forced to sell that west end, I'm going to get enough money out of the deal to do that east end myself," Zickler vowed
Previously, Zickler had offered to give the west-end property to the county in return for development of Dorothy Lane on the east end. This deal appears to be dead. By a 3-0 vote on Nov. 13, the County Court agreed to enter into an interagency agreement with ODOT for the purpose of acquiring the right-of-way, and county leaders stipulated that there would be no quid pro quo with Zickler. Dorothy Lane would stay off the bargaining table.
"You can't tie the two together," Reynolds said at the time.
Now, both private parties are coming at the county from different directions.
Stinnett said the latest flare-up arises from Zickler's written request (printed in the Blue Mountain Eagle, Nov. 27) asking for the county to expand the right-of-way to accommodate larger vehicles. Based on dissolution of a subdivision on Zickler's land, he questioned the county's claims to the access.
"There's no way the county can maintain control of a road to a subdivision that no longer exists," Stinnett said.
"It's really stupid for the county to even be involved in this," he said.
Zickler, on the other hand, challenged the notion that the county should stand by and allow a landowner's encroachments to stop the development of an access. He said he took a contractor to the site recently to estimate costs of improvements.
"If the county can't do it, I figure on using the money I get from the west end to develop the east end," he said.
Reynolds agreed the law allows landowners served by a public-access route to make improvements to that site on their own (a higher standard exists for the county to justify improving such an access). It remains to be seen whether Zickler will try to improve Dorothy Lane on his own or go through the county. However, there's still the circuit court decision which Stinnett points out injoined each party from interfering with the other's right to use the existing road. How that decision plays out in the standoff is anybody's guess.
Both sides expressed frustration with the duration of this controversy.
"It's been an ongoing deal for 20 years or better," Zickler said.
Stinnett said he asked three times for vacation of the road - what he saw as a quick fix in lieu of litigation to prove that the county does not have the legal right to claim the public access.
However, the argument that vacation of the subdivision legally stipulates vacation of roads to the subdivision could be dangerous. Reynolds cautioned that the same subdivision once included the property where Stinnett's house is located.
In some ways, the conflict has become personal.
"All of this is a quid pro quo for Dick Zickler," Stinnett charged.
Zickler saw the matter differently. He said improvement of Dorothy Lane should be a simple matter to allow him to use his property.
"Nowadays you've got to do everything the hard way," he said.