By Lloyd G. Carter
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will run next month.
North Fork—Madera County’s most fire-vulnerable mountain subdivision—has gotten a lot more dangerous thanks to the county’s settlement of a lawsuit that reduced to 12 feet wide a critical road for fire trucks entering the subdivision, violating state fire road requirements and the county’s own regulations.
County Supervisor Tom Wheeler, who represents the eastern county and joined the Board of Supervisors after the lawsuit was settled by former county counsel David Prentice, said in a court declaration:
“I became aware that part of that settlement involved giving away the road through that one area and creating a 12-foot right of way of sorts in this one small portion of Cascadel Road. I objected strenuously to this as it is not legal and is not in the best interests of not only Cascadel, but of all of the public. Twelve feet would also restrict the property rights of any property owner using that road for access.”
Wheeler adds, “This was a bad idea, a bad precedent and not in the people’s interest. I tried to stop the agreement from being carried out. It wasn’t legal to create a 12-foot right of way, and there was already a 60-foot right of way there. Again, I was told it was over and there was nothing I could do about it.”
Mark Stamas, former president of the Cascadel Woods Property Owners Association, led the fight over the last seven years to keep the road right-of-way to its original 60 feet, triggering what he said were trumped-up criminal charges to enforce the illegal settlement. The charges alleged “damage” and “obstruction” of a public roadway even though what was actually occurring was road repair in response to a county corrective notice. The charges against Stamas were later dismissed. He filed a federal civil rights case in 2009 but cannot take it to trial because two years of pretrial skirmishing have left him too broke to continue.
Stamas’ story is a tale of small county politics, unethical lawyers, abuse of government power and his obscenely expensive battle to try and gain redress before a federal judge who Stamas feels is indifferent to his plight or the dangers posed by the road conflict in the event of wildfire.
Stamas’ former neighbors, Gerald Houston and his wife, Linda Barlow, who started the court battle over the road in 2005, don’t even live in their Cascadel vacation home currently for sale, leaving the fire road’s fate still legally undecided for a community of 106 homes, plus a clubhouse and numerous outbuildings. The subdivision has narrowly dodged disaster three times in the last decade when wildfires broke out near the subdivision’s boundaries.
The road was first dedicated for free public use by pioneer landowner George Wagner to Fresno County in 1888, but, unfortunately, the survey done in 1888, which would show the exact path of the road, has been lost. When Madera County was formed in 1893, Fresno County gave the road to Madera County. It originally was an Indian trail.
Should a fire break out near the subdivision front gate and a car break down on the disputed road, escaping residents would have to flee on foot and fire trucks could not get into the subdivision because the main private road into the subdivision crosses a creek and the bridge over the creek will not carry the weight of a fire truck.
In June 2004, Paul Vining, a neighbor of Stamas, sold his 10.4-acre parcel to Houston and Barlow (hereafter the Houstons), who lived in the San Jose area. The Houstons knew the deed contained an exception for a 60-foot road right-of-way across the property. The exception in the deed is undefined as to the right-of-way’s actual location. Only the physical road tells the location and it is not along the northern boundary of the Houston property but south of it, nor would it pass through an adjacent bog that includes a spring. The Houstons claimed the road right-of-way should be straddling the northern boundary of their parcel and asserted the county road department told them so. In fact, however, the county counsel’s office, at least initially, did not agree, finding that the actual Cascadel Road, which has been in use for well over a century, is where the 60-foot right-of-way must be.
In September 2004, Stamas, who was serving as chairman of the Cascadel Woods Property Owners’ Association (CWPOA), and Brian Curtis, a handyman for the association, met with the Houstons to explain how the association maintained the road. Two days later, Houston posted a sign on that road that read “permission to pass revocable.” Over the next few months, the Houstons claimed ownership of the Cascadel Road as it crosses several hundred feet of their property.
The Houstons hired Oakhurst attorney John Jamison, who was considered the best real estate attorney in the county, if slightly shady. Within two years, the county would be suing Jamison for fraud in an unrelated real estate dispute. Jamison threatened the county that the Houstons were going to put a gate across the road, blocking access. Jamison was later killed, along with two sons, in a September 29, 2006, car crash in Oregon.
In May 2005, the CWPOA went to the county Board of Supervisors for help to prevent the Houstons from closing the road. The Board resolved to keep the road open and asked the county counsel’s office to investigate. The homeowners’ association sent the Houstons a letter asking them to take down the sign that said passage revocable at will.
On August 5, 2005, former county counsel David Prentice, who had gone into private practice but was acting as a special outside county counsel, wrote the homeowners’ association saying the county had concluded the road was a public road in its current alignment and could be maintained by the homeowners’ group. Prentice’s letter also stated that “we have further concluded that the alignment is historical, existing for 40 years, and that the alignment shown on [the] assessor’s map was merely a convenience for the assessor and not a delineation of the actual proper alignment of the road.”
Prentice said in that 2005 letter, “The [homeowners’] Association, in the county’s opinion, can continue to maintain Cascadel Road as it has in the historical past.” The county never retracted this opinion. However, Prentice would later reverse his position 180 degrees and side with the Houstons. Prentice also knew that even if the right-of-way wasn’t established, the road, which had been offered for dedication, had become a public road through continuous public use for decades, which is known as a prescriptive easement.
Later, in August 2005, Stamas, on behalf of the homeowners, contacted Everett Rose of the county engineering department regarding permit requirements for maintaining or repairing the road and was told there were none. The county issued a Correction Notice that all culverts and trenches along the Cascadel Road, including the Houston right-of-way, be cleared. Repairs on the road began that month and county code enforcement officers Eric Yancy and Robert Coley were sent by Prentice to prevent trouble and the work from being impeded. According to Stamas, they believed the road repairs to be excellent and never believed that the association needed permits. Yancy would later state in a sworn deposition that the county did not handle road disputes through criminal proceedings but through an administrative procedure.
During that August 2005 road maintenance, Shane Killian, a licensed contractor, said in a sworn declaration that he was on a grader when the Houstons both began harassing him. Killian said Gerald Houston “threatened to sue me and that I would go to jail, that I was trespassing. They claimed they had enough money to break the [homeowners’] Association and that I would personally be either sued or charged criminally, or both, for my involvement in the work. Mr. Houston said that he would own my equipment and that he would own my home. Mr. Houston appeared to be a bully with money. I felt personally threatened.”
Killian said he contacted Stamas, who immediately put him in touch with county counsel Prentice, who “assured me that I could continue to maintain the road for the Association as the road is a long-standing public road as we all know it to be.”
Killian said the very next day Jamison, who had been Killian’s personal attorney, called him to say he would no longer represent him.
On September 9, 2005, the Houstons filed a civil suit against Madera County, both Stamas and homeowners’ handyman Brian Curtis personally, and the owners (and their mother!) of a 26-acre parcel to the immediate east of the Houstons. The suit alleged trespass and slander of property and sought to quiet title, meaning a judge would decide where the right-of-way was. The suit did not name the homeowners’ association as a defendant even though it was the homeowners’ association funding the road maintenance by a contractor under county supervision.
The Houstons were represented in that suit by Jamison, who had an obvious conflict because he represented the Cascadel property owners’ association in several other matters in the 1980s and 1990s.
On the advice of county counsel Prentice, the homeowners hired Ventura County attorney Martin Koczanowicz (then practicing in Oakhurst) to represent the five individual defendants. Stamas asked Koczanowicz to challenge Jamison as having a conflict of interest, among other defenses, but Koczanowicz refused to do so. Stamas now says that hiring Koczanowicz was a big mistake and that they should have hired an attorney from the homeowners’ insurance carrier. Koczanowicz would be fired by the end of 2006.
Mediation on the lawsuit occurred during 2006. Without notifying the defendants or the homeowners association, the Houstons filed a second civil suit against the former owners of the property, New Life Foundation, which had described the 60-foot right-of-way in the Houston property deed decades earlier. Because New Life Foundation no longer existed the Houstons gained a default judgment, which they later nullified.
In December 2006, the first lawsuit was privately settled between the county and the Houstons, who then dismissed Stamas and the other named individuals as defendants. The Houstons’ agreement with the county called for the 60-foot easement to be granted to the Houstons and, in turn, the Houstons would offer to dedicate a 12-foot right-of-way where the road crossed the property. This is the deal that County Supervisor Tom Wheeler called illegal and a fire danger to the Cascadel community. Under the agreement, the Houstons had the exclusive right to maintain the 12-foot road where it crossed their property. The county code requirement for a public road remains 60 feet and state regulations regarding fire roads require 18 feet.
Sheldon Feigel, attorney for the Cascadel property owners association, wrote county counsel Prentice on July 5, 2007, contending that because the Houstons had dismissed Stamas as a defendant in their first suit, and because the property owners’ association had never been named a defendant, “nothing of the settlement of that action has any effect whatsoever on CWPOA [the homeowners’ group] or its members.”
Feigel reminded Prentice that the homeowners’ association had been given a maintenance order to place materials along the road to prevent erosion and that the association would continue to maintain the entire road as it had done for decades.
Feigel then wrote to Prentice that a deputy sheriff had stated he had been instructed that any member of the homeowners’ association caught maintaining the road “were to be arrested at the direction of county counsel, David Prentice.”
Feigel wrote, “This is a fairly serious charge by a deputy sheriff and one which I hope did not, in fact, issue from your office. Further, we would appreciate it if you would clear up any misunderstanding that the sheriff’s department may have regarding your instructions to have citizens arrested for what is, at most, a civil dispute between [the Houstons] and the CWPOA over the ownership rights, as well as the maintenance rights on a portion of Cascadel Road.”
Prentice wrote Feigel back on July 11, 2007, and claimed that during mediation, “the mediator [Fresno attorney Doug Noll] made it very clear that the actions of Mark Stamas and the CWPOA were well beyond the bounds of reason and law and that in his estimation the owners [Houstons] were to prevail at trial of the action, should it continue.”
Prentice claimed the homeowners should support the settlement because the Houstons’ portion of the road would now be maintained by them. Prentice did not mention the 12-foot road violated both county codes for public roads and state regulations. Nor did he note that under the terms of the county’s agreement with the Houstons, the road could never be widened for fire safety or for new construction access.
Significantly, Prentice did not deny he had ordered sheriff’s deputies to arrest anyone maintaining the road, as Feigel had asked him to do. Stamas said he called Sheriff John Anderson about the matter, and Anderson said it was clearly a civil matter and he would not permit his deputies to arrest anyone.
The sheriff, Stamas said, kept his word. However, that did not stop Prentice from ultimately charging Stamas with five misdemeanors.
In the first couple of days of October 2007, when the association again maintained the road including through the Houston property, Stamas was present at the portion of the road passing through the Houstons’ property to keep the peace. He says he was not directing or performing road maintenance. Houston and his wife were taking pictures of the road work. There are pictures of them showing Stamas the agreement with the county under which, they claimed, they could have Stamas arrested. These were the photos used to charge Stamas with five misdemeanors. Houston also said he first had his attorney, Greg Chappel (Jamison’s partner), call Prentice to complain about the road work. Prentice then referred the matter to deputy county counsel Dave Herman, according to Herman, who is no longer with the county.
On the morning of October 4, 2007, Houston said he called Herman to offer pictures of the incident one or two days earlier and at 10:23 a.m. e-mailed Herman the pictures he and his wife had taken of Stamas and the road repair crew.
According to Houston, Herman quickly researched the matter and determined that Title 10 of the Madera County Code forbade obstruction or damage to county roadways. Nine minutes after receiving the e-mailed pictures from Houston, Herman forwarded them to Prentice, with a message that said “Note: These show Stamas in the act.” What the “damage” or “obstruction” was Herman did not say. Nor did Herman say what Stamas’ actual criminal act was.
Herman did not bother to call Stamas to get his side of the story nor did he speak to the code enforcement officers who had watched the Cascadel Road maintenance since the dispute arose and had never had required any permits. Nor did Herman charge the equipment operators. Nor, apparently, did Prentice tell Herman that he had advised the Cascadel homeowners in 2005 that they had every right to maintain the road. The next day, Herman, apparently having completed his cursory investigation, charged Stamas criminally in the Bass Lake Courthouse with six misdemeanors, each carrying a six-month jail sentence.
Stamas said Houston and Prentice were both mad at him for continuing to defend the 60-foot right-of-way on behalf of the homeowners association so they set him up to be arrested. Stamas points out that the only thing different between the previous association road work and the work supposedly “damaging” the road was the illegal agreement between the county and Houston.
“First the county helps us, then they make a bogus deal,” Stamas said. “Houston said he would have Prentice enforce his deal on everyone, and he did. This begs the question why a sworn public servant would do such a thing. I was the party being made an ‘example.’ It’s hard to believe this kind of thing can still happen.”
(Author’s note: In part two, Cascadel Woods Property Owners Association President Mark Stamas gets criminally charged for maintaining a critical fire safety road. The charges are later dropped. He decides to fight back with a federal civil rights lawsuit but finds the battle with a rich opponent who hires the judge’s former law firm so expensive he cannot get to trial.)
(Disclosure: The author is neighbors with Mark Stamas in the Cascadel subdivision.)
Lloyd G. Carter has been writing about California water issues for 40 years. His Web site is www.lloydgcarter.com.