Penny Keeling has gone jogging on the Cascade Canal trail nearly every day for the past 25 years. The trail is just minutes away from her house in Nevada City, and follows along a Nevada Irrigation District canal.
Keeling was shocked, she said, when she saw a gate blocking access to her favorite entrance to the trail off Gracie Road late last month.
The trail runs through a shaded pine forest and is relatively flat, making it a popular route for Nevada City residents looking for an easy trail to hike, run, or walk their pets. It has been historically open for public use despite the fact that it intersects with private properties in some areas.
Keeling is afraid the new gate could permanently forbid public use of the trail.
Jonathan Davis, a Nevada City homeowner whose property line extends into the trailhead, claimed responsibility for installing the gate, and left a letter notifying concerned hikers that he didn't make the decision to block the trail lightly.
The letter stated that the property has been in Davis' family for over three generations, and cited experiences with "disrespectful trail users" in recent years as reason for blocking the trail. The letter references incidents of theft, litter, prowlers, and homeless sleeping on the trail.
Kristy Kelly, an administrative representative from NID, said the agency played no role in installing the fence.
"We have easements to access the canal for maintenance and operation purposes," said Kelly. "We don't necessarily promote public trail use."
Private vs. public
Members of Friends of Banner Mountain are now working on negotiations with the Gracie Road property owner to reopen the portion of the trail that is currently blocked.
"I'm optimistic that sense will prevail, and this won't have to be resolved down at the local courthouse," said Andrew Wilkinson, vice president of the organization.
Over the past two decades, property owners have installed fences blocking access to other NID canal trails in the county on multiple occasions, and have faced community opposition.
On one occasion, the issue went to trial.
At a trail running alongside the Rattlesnake Canal, a property owner, Jon Blasius, installed a fence blocking a portion of the trail that intersects with his property.
Friends of the Trails, representing Nevada County hikers and trail users, filed a lawsuit against Blasius in a court case called Friends of the Trails v. Blasius.
Friends of the Trails won the case in February 2000, as they proved public access to the trail had been ongoing since before 1972, when a state law was put in place that greatly limited prescriptive easements.
As a result, the public won the right to use the trail — including the portion that intersected with Blasius' property.
In 2015, a property owner along the trail at the Snow Mountain Ditch installed gates to block public access to the portion of the trail intersecting with his property, which cut off a popular mountain biking route.
An agreement was reached in April between the community and the landowner after the route was blocked for nearly two and a half years. The property owner agreed to reopen the trail and plans to install signs and hedges to protect privacy.
Chris Hawthorne, who owns another property that intersects with the Snow Mountain Ditch trail, said he was in favor of re-opening the trail, but also understands the plight of property owners who want to block access to their land. There are infrequent abuses that occur on the trail, he said, that create problems. Those abuses include excessive use, noise, and trespassing off the trail, according to Hawthorne.
"The public needs to honor the rights of property owners, and property owners need to honor the public's right to access the land," he said.
Gracie Ditch trail detour
Staff from Bear Yuba Land Trust said that while negotiations are being made with Davis, the landowner on Gracie Road, hikers are being redirected to another trailhead just a few hundred feet down the road, which is open for public access to a different portion of the Cascade Canal trail.
Davis declined comment for this story, based on the advice of legal council.
PHOTO: Access to a Cascade Canal trailhead on Gracie Road was recently blocked by a gate. Signs direct hikers to another trailhead down the road.
CLICK HERE to see the original article and photos in The Union newspaper.