From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 4 - April 25, 2002
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

County to require $1,000 from Blatt road petitioners

by Cat Urbigkit

County to require $1,000 from Blatt road petitioners

William Belveal once again approached the Sublette County Commission with a petition to extend the New Fork/Willow Creek Road through a parcel of state land and through private property owned by John Blatt.

The road already exists in this location, but is not a county road and Blatt has notified the Bridger-Teton National Forest that he plans to prohibit public access through his land at the end of the year. The road is currently used by the public, with his permission, to access the Willow Creek Guard Station area of the national forest.

Belveal has presented the road petition to the commission twice in the past, but because of technical errors, the commission declined to accept those petitions.

At Fridayís session and despite Commissioner Gordon Johnstonís objections, Commission Chairman Bill Cramer and Commissioner Betty Fear voted to require the petitioners to file a $1,000 certified check with the Sublette County Clerk before a viewer will be hired to examine the road.

Johnston noted that Blattís closure of the road would also shut off access to a second road across his property that provides a route into the Little Flat Top area. Johnston expressed his interest in getting public access to this second road as well.

"This is more important to me than the Willow Creek Road," Johnston said. Cramer pointed out that the petition only addresses the New Fork/Willow Creek Road, so Johnston suggested the petition be amended to address the other road as well, but the idea was eventually dropped when it was suggested the viewer examine the other road as well. Cramer disagreed with having the second road involved, saying that since the commission didnít initiate the petition, the commission should only act on what is specifically laid out in the petition and outlined in state law.

"Thatís not part of the petition," Cramer said. "Iím not going to assign a viewer something thatís not in the petition."

Johnston agreed to drop the issue once Sublette County Clerk Mary Lankford read the road statute aloud, revealing that state law gives the road viewer some leeway in what he examines and this may include another road in the general area. According to the law, once a proper petition is accepted by the commission, a road viewer must be appointed who will report back to the commission.

The viewer is to consider both the public and private convenience of the road and the cost of the road, and recommend to the commission whether the proposal is practicable and "ought or ought not" be approved, considering the damage to the property owners and the benefits of the road. A public hearing must be held before the commission issues a decision.

Johnston said he has received two phone calls in opposition to his position supporting making the road through Blattís land a county road, but the majority of the people he meets on the street "say, basically, ĎYouíre doing the right thing, donít let that son of a bitch get away with it (Blatt closing off access),í " Johnston said.

Cramer asked Bridger-Teton National Forest officials Craig Trulock and Cindy Stein what the federal agency was doing to resolve the access problem. Trulock responded that the agency is looking at opportunities to purchase an inholding in the forest above the Willow Creek Guard Station, because that land has a road easement. But that easement would only allow the landowner to access the property, not the general public, Trulock said.

Trulock said he is also considering the construction of a road around from New Fork Lake. Stein noted that the road construction wouldnít be able to begin until 2004 at the earliest.

"Thatís the two options weíre looking at right now," Trulock said.

Belveal said, "To me, to cut another road through this pristine land just doesnít make sense."

The forest service built and maintains the Willow Creek Guard Station knowing it had no access other than landowner permission that could be revoked.

Belveal said about 600 people register to use the Willow Creek trailhead each year, with about 80 percent of these being from out of state.

"Itís a tourist attraction," Belveal said. "We really shouldnít be shutting our doors to the future ... We need to keep public access in our future.

"I really believe we need to extend this county road up through the national forest boundary," Belveal said.

Daniel-area rancher Doug Vickrey listened to the discussion about Blatt shutting off access through his property and expressed his concern about how many other similar road situations exist in the county; "People have access because of the generosity of the landowner, to access forest service ground."

Vickrey pointed out that Blatt purchased the property knowing that access was granted by his permission only, and suggested if the county were to take away this property right, they were opening "a can of worms."

When Johnston started to speak, Vickrey said: "They are sitting here with a petition for one side of the road and now because you think you want to go to Little Flat Top, you want another one. Where is it going to stop? Is there another road in there youíd like to see?"

Cramer said while he is a subjective person, he can be objective, listening to what everyone has to say about the issue.

"But my initial reaction to this is I donít like the fact of taking something from private property owners in Sublette County," Cramer said.

Belveal said, "A lot of people in this county, a large portion, believe in what we believe. ... As our county grows and more and more of these roads are closed off, what are people going to do in the future? This is tourism. When the gas fields are dead, say 20 or 30 years from now when the boom is gone, the county will have plenty of money in taxes, but people have to live here and they have to have something to do."

Cramer said: "I will tell you right now my personal opinion is that private property rights matter. If this was your private property or mine, weíd have a different opinion about it entirely."

Vickrey said he knows of several other high traffic roads similar to the one at issue.

"Once this thing starts, Iím telling you itís not going to stop," Vickrey said.

Fear said she also has definite feelings about private property rights.

"I think we need to take the face and the personality off of this particular parcel," Fear said, questioning it because the land belongs to Blatt it has generated such a high intensity of controversy.

Johnston interjected: "Excuse me, Betty, but I have said many times that this is a different case. This is somebody who came in. This is not some local rancher who is trying to make a living up there."

"Would you be as willing to go to this measure if it were?" Fear questioned. "That is the point."

Fear said, "I do not want to be responsible for taking private property from a landowner."

"I realize there are private property rights," Belveal said, "but the public has rights too. This is our land and we need to be able to access it."

Vickrey pointed out there are other ways to access the area, including building a road

over from the New Fork Lake area, and no property rights controversy or precedent would be generated.

Trulock responded by stating that this would mean trading several hundred thousand dollars "to avoid controversy. The several hundred thousand dollars is the publicís, the taxpayersí, money."

Vickrey urged the commission: "Donít do it. Donít spend taxpayersí funds to take away private property rights."

"The public does need access, donít get me wrong," Fear said. "I think this is the wrong way to go about it."

Cramer suggested the petitioners be required to post a $1,000 deposit with the county to help cover some of the costs of the process. Cramer said while that amount of money wonít go far in terms of the potential cost of the action, it is a way for petitioners to demonstrate they are serious about the issue.

Johnston objected, as did Belveal, who said he was representing the public and "we are all taxpayers. Itís our money too."

Cramer and Fear voted for the $1,000 deposit, while Johnston opposed it. Lankford said she would not take action on having a road viewer begin his examination until the certified check has been delivered to her office. The commission chose Brad Clingman, the Albany County road and bridge program foreman, to be the road viewer in the case.

The petition contains the names of 10 county residents: Phillip and Amy Belveal; William and Lucille Belveal; Steven and Norma Licking; Robert Diehl; James Washam; and Michael and Alice Aldrich.

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