Accessing property via a road that has no deeded rights is common. In the hills around Livermore, very few of the landowners have right-of-ways that have been validated by an official grant of easement.
On the other hand, very few of these access roads are disputed. The land seldom changes hands, so the owners are known to other landowners along the route. Good neighbor policy is to leave reasonable people alone and not create a Hatfield’s and McCoy situation.
In our case, most of the property along our access road is owned by the City and County of San Francisco. This is a situation with both good and bad implications.
We do however, have a portion of our road that passes through a privately owned piece and this has become a problem. Recently the owners of this small parcel have decided that we do not have the right to pass and locked the gate. Doing what we could to make it clear that we believe the route is our legal access, we enforced our rights by cutting the chain (we used our giant master key, the bolt cutter) and placed our own lock on the gate. The property owner promptly removed our lock, and thus the battle of LaCosta Ridge. (Juan LaCosta was one of the early landowners in the area.)
When seeking to have the owners sign a grant deed that could be recorded to validate our rights, we were told they could not do that as they were planning to sell their piece and the purchasers were not interested in buying if a right-of-way existed. Thus we sued to establish our right.
For the early years of my life, I dreaded law suits and therefore avoided legal action at almost all cost. Now, after having courtroom experience, I’ve concluded that when you believe you’re right, court is a good place and having concluded that we’re right, it looks like that’s where we’re headed.
This battle of LaCosta Ridge has motivated me to learn about the history of the road and it’s very interesting. The earliest inhabitants were Ohlone Indians. They gave way to Spanish Missionaries in the late eighteenth century. The area down stream of our ranch became known as Rancho El Valle de San Jose and a Spanish Mexican land grant turned most of the bottom land over to the Bernal family – soon to become also known as the Sunols (by marriage). Thus leading to the name for the railroad town at the head of Niles Canyon – Sunol.
When California became a state, there was some debate about the validity of their Land Grant ownership, so a land commission was formed to validate the Spanish Mexican land grants and validate they did. Shortly thereafter the upstream area, now best described by the Public Property Survey System, was surveyed with the intent by the U.S. Government of selling. The Township in which our ranch is located is Tier 4 South, Range 2 East, Mount Diablo Base and Meridian. And, the parcels within this township were created by surveys that took place about the time of the Civil War.
Not long after the Civil War, the properties of this township were sold and the land transfers took place by U.S. Land Patents. In most cases the Homestead Act.
During this time, the homesteaders utilized the land by grazing cattle, sheep and horses.
Learning about the history of our ranch has been enjoyable, but it also makes us realize that there were many before us. The first recorded documents related to road access to the area occurred in 1882 when a group of about twenty people petitioned the County of Alameda to make the access road a County Road, which they did. But the County Road was abandoned in 1922.
One thing we’ve learned while preparing for this law suit is that right-of-way law is very complex. Fortunately for us, it looks like the story of our rights is simple.