Valley man stakes claim to paper road with barrel, then sues

David Briggs
A valley man is asking the county and the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group to cede interest in a short connector road, seen above, that bisects his two parcels. The planning group, which owns many such roads in the valley, says there is benefit in keeping it public.  
01/01/2020

A man who owns two parcels divided by a public road in Woodacre has sued the county and the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group with the hope of gaining exclusive access.

Bruce Wick does not contend that he owns the road but asks the county and the planning group, which has a legal interest in the road, to award him the title. In recent months, he took the matter into his own hands, blocking the road with a barrel and later filling it with concrete to prevent residents from moving it.

The dispute has involved residents who like to use the short road to bypass a blind turn onto San Geronimo Valley Drive at the intersection with Railroad Avenue.

County counsel has until Jan. 11 to file a response to the lawsuit. A date for the first hearing is set for March 6 in Marin Superior Court.

Mr. Wick’s suit, filed by attorneys Edwin Bradley and Daniel Raff in Petaluma, first establishes his ownership of the two parcels on either side of the unnamed road with county assessor maps. He has owned his residence since 1994 and the other parcel—a small triangle, 63 feet by 54 feet by 32 feet—since 2005.  

The suit says that Mr. Wick's ownership of the road between the properties would be consistent with “legal and equitable reasoning.” The suit uses case law, and also cites California Civil Code section 831, which states, “An owner of land bounded by a road or street is presumed to own to the center of the way.” Since Mr. Wick owns property on both sides of the road, the law suggests he has a legal right to the full road.

The suit also underscores the general confusion over which entity is responsible for the road; staff from the county department of public works denied county ownership when pressed by Mr. Wick, the suit explains.

The suit asks for a judgment awarding Mr. Wick as the owner of the road and determining that neither the county nor the planning group nor anyone else has any “right, title, estate, lien easement, interest or other encumbrance on the subject property adverse to plaintiff.”

Mr. Wick’s lawyers did not provide further comment.

Brian Staley, the chair of the San Geronimo Planning Group, explained that the organization obtained ownership of the road, along with many of the valley’s paper lanes—roads that exist on a map but were never built—and a group of undevelopable parcels in the ‘90s with the intention of preserving public access, including to open space. 

More than a third of the roads in the valley fall within the group’s jurisdiction. 

Yet Mr. Staley said the county has maintained the road intersecting Mr. Wick’s property for 100 years; the roadway is paved, and the county has installed a stop sign there. 

Mr. Staley describes the planning group has not as an owner of the paper lanes, but as having a legal interest in them. In practice, the group plays a minimal role in maintaining the roads, with adjacent residents providing necessary funds. At times, agencies such as the Marin Municipal Water District will pitch in when the road is near water district infrastructure. 

In the past, the planning group has agreed to transfer ownership of a paper lane to adjacent residents and the county. In this case, however, Mr. Staley said he sees some public benefit to the road remaining public.

The planning group has secured legal counsel in response to the suit. Mr. Staley said he wishes there had been an opportunity for a conversation with Mr. Wick before he took action. 

“The first we officially heard of this was when we received the legal documents,” he said. “We would have preferred to have a conversation with him first, to consider whether this makes sense for the whole community.”