The Blaine County commissioners took a trip back in time Tuesday afternoon to figure out the future public use of a road through the bottom of Lee’s Gulch near Bellevue—but after more than three and a half hours, the board decided it needed until January to sort it all out.
That means at least a few more months of limbo in the area, as the county debates the validity of a sign put up landowner Richard Gouley banning motorized traffic up the canyon. To him, Lee’s Gulch Road isn’t a county road at all—it’s his driveway.
The so-called validation process seeks to answer a pair of simple questions, according to the board’s attorney, Tim Graves. First, is Lee’s Gulch Road, which feeds toward BLM land west of Bellevue about a mile south of Broadford Road, public? And if so, is it in the public interest for the county to claim it as such, opening it up to more uses, and higher maintenance standards?
The answers aren’t so simple—and to date, the county has spent about $30,000 with outside lawyers and consultants to find them, according to Clerk’s Office records. The existence of the right of way depends on spotty mining maps, piecemeal deeds and the uneven memories of people who remember it decades ago.
Stevens Historical Research Associates thinks it belongs to the county. The Boise-based consultant hired by the commissioners dredged up 166 archival documents to compile its report. Its conclusion: Miners established the route two years prior to 1881, when a homestead patented by Thomas Hatfill first pulled the area out of the public domain. The year happens to coincide with an Idaho Territorial Legislature act marking the future state’s first major regulation of roads. It’s still in place, and all routes “commonly used by the public” prior to its 1881 signing count as county roads. (Idaho wouldn’t become a state for another nine years.)
Amalia Baldwin, who wrote the report, can’t say exactly where the road was back then—just that there were enough productive mines at the bottom of Lee’s Gulch—and references of miners coming and going—to provide evidence of travel into and out of the canyon. That’s enough, according to Graves. Under Idaho law, the county doesn’t need a map or a survey to validate the road, just a “preponderance of evidence” that something existed “in the general area.” Roads, like rivers, move over time, Graves said, and the law recognizes that. But there’s nothing in the code saying how close a historical path had to be to a present-day one.
“It’s a question of reasonableness,” Graves said.
Gouley, who eventually bought the old Hatfill plot, and many of his neighbors aren’t convinced. Gouley has done his own research, with the help of former County Commissioner and local mining historian Tom Blanchard. They’ve found maps that show a different road atop a ridge on the south side of the gulch that miners might have used. And, this week, they presented an affidavit from former property owner Gerald Sherman saying the county surrendered the road in the late 1960s when it allowed him to gate the road without protest.
The commissioners didn’t have time to consider Sherman’s testimony before Tuesday’s meeting.
Gouley has never tried to totally close access. The area is popular among horseback riders—himself included—and he lets them through, along with hikers and mountain bikers. His issue is with motorized use, which he said is dangerous to have around horses.
If the county validates the right of way, the next step is to decide what type of road they’ll maintain there. That’s when the question of usage will come up. They didn’t consider it on Tuesday. To do so would put the cart—motorized or otherwise—before the proverbial horse.