Ongoing debate over whether a road west of Bellevue is public or private won’t be settled for at least another three months.

A hearing on Tuesday to determine whether the dirt road running through the bottom of Lee’s Gulch is public was ultimately continued until April to give everybody involved more time to consider the evidence. The decision by the Blaine County commissioners followed three hours of discussion around a report by a Boise-based research firm that suggested that the road belongs to the county.

Landowner Richard Gouley and others pointed to what they described as inaccuracies in the report by Stevens Historical Research Associates, including the location of certain mining claims, and argued that they didn’t have enough time to study and respond to all the documents compiled by the Stevens group. The initial report was completed in July—but related documents were posted online as recently as Dec. 27, according to Gouley.

“We want to make sure that we’ve heard everything,” commission Chairman Jacob Greenberg said. “We’re not here as proponents of a public road or not. We’re here to hear all the evidence and draw a conclusion based on the evidence.”

Whether the road is public and owned by the county, completely private or a private road that allows public access has been a subject of debate since the early 1990s. The most recent iteration of the debate arose after Gouley put up a sign banning motorized traffic up the canyon, angering some people who use the road to access public lands.

Now the county faces a two-part process: determining whether the road can be considered public based on historical evidence, then deciding whether it’s in the county’s best interest to maintain it that way.

The original Stevens report concluded that Lee’s Gulch Road was used by miners and was established by 1881, when Idaho’s Territorial Legislature declared all roads in public use to be public roads. The road doesn’t show up on a General Land Office survey from 1882—but that’s because the surveyor wasn’t in the exact area where he would have seen the road, according to Stevens researchers. Furthermore, the report said, the road remained a public-access road through at least the 1960s.

The Gouley family on Tuesday presented commissioners with evidence that certain mining claims may have been in different locations than the Stevens report showed, while former County Commissioner and local mining historian Tom Blanchard pointed to other alleged historical inaccuracies, arguing that any errors would call the entire report into question. Other presenters questioned the reliability of some sources included in the report, such as newspaper articles.

Report authors Jennifer Stevens and Amalia Baldwin defended their research and vehemently denied that they had purposely created a misleading report, as some speakers had implied.

“As historians, there’s always more you can find,” Stevens said. “There’s a never-ending pile of materials we could find, and of course every client and every person is limited by time.”

 Gouley and others who dispute the Stevens report will have about a month to study and rebut the latest documents, the commissioners decided Tuesday; after that, the Stevens researchers will have about a month to respond to their questions and concerns. A validation hearing, which will include a public comment session, is scheduled for April 7.

“There’s more to learn about this, and our purpose is to determine whether this is a public right of way or not,” Commissioner Dick Fosbury said. “So I think that we need to find the truth.”

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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