The Ravalli County Commissioners held a meeting recently to discuss opening a gate on Hayes Creek Road that landowners in the area had begun locking to exclude the general public from using the road. The commissioners are bound by law to remove obstructions from the public right of way on a road immediately upon being informed about the obstacle.
The road is located on the west side of the valley south of Hamilton off of Camas Creek Road in the Charlos Heights area.
Scott German, a local landowner, told the commissioners that he believed the road was a private driveway. He said there is an easement for a county road along the border of the property but that the road in question was not located within that easement.
County Planning manager Terry Nelson presented a plat map showing the deeded right of way and showing the actual roadway which deviates from the easement as it crosses property belonging to a Mrs. Brown, who was not present at the meeting.
Deputy County Attorney Dan Browder told the commissioners that the road was “clearly a county road.” He said it may deviate from the recorded easement but that “at the very least” it is a road by prescriptive right. He said roads created in this fashion usually lack any documentation.
Browder said that in his opinion the road was certainly a public road and that the closed gate could be considered an obstacle according to the law.
German, who actually closed the gate, said that he did it for the sake of Mrs. Brown, “because she is tired of people coming in and tearing the road up and leaving garbage.” He said he didn’t understand how it could be a county road when the county has never done any work or maintenance on it.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott noted that there are many county roads that are not maintained, but they are still county roads.
Darby District Ranger Eric Winthers read some correspondence from the county attorney in 1989 confirming that the road was a county road. He said the Forest Service sued a property owner who had blocked the road and that a federal judge had found it to be a public road. That gate was moved but retained by the Forest Service to use to restrict travel on the forest road as part of its travel plan.
“In our opinion and that of a federal judge, it is a public road,” said Winthers.
German said that if the county wants it to be a public road that they should put it in the designated easement.
Chilcott said it could be done, but that it didn’t seem practical.
Browder told the commissioners, “You have a prescriptive easement. Can you go in and construct a road on the platted easement? Yes. But it doesn’t lessen your prescriptive right that is already established.” He said the closed gate could be considered an obstacle on a public road and the law requires the commissioners to remove it immediately upon being notified.
German stressed the fact that his neighbors had not received proper notice of the meeting and were unavailable. He asked the commissioners to hold another meeting about the issue when the others could attend.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows noted that the law requires them to act “immediately” to remove any obstacle from a public road. He asked if the gate could be opened and left open pending another meeting on the issue. German said that he would open the gate and leave it open until the next meeting.
A public meeting on the issue was scheduled for Wednesday, October 23 at 10 a.m.