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Signs threaten public trail access

Hikers and dog walkers have trod the treasured Ditch Road Trail for decades, lauding it as a flat, shaded mecca for dogs and a “promenade” for hikers who don’t want to break a sweat.

Lately, however, there’s been a bug in the system: signs, obviously homemade, warning “Private driveway entrance. Private property. No entry. No parking. Your vehicle license has been recorded. Trespassers will be prosecuted.”

The Ditch Road is the province of the Talent Irrigation District, with a long history of being public. It stretches from Grandview to Strawberry Lane and, as a path, beyond that. It offers only one parking area, near the Grandview entrance and that, says city Parks & Recreation Director Michael Black, is in the private ownership of the sign-maker.

A trail map for Hald Strawberry Park posted on the Ashland Parks & Recreation website shows a "P" for parking area at the north end of the trail, but at that site there's what appears to be an official sign saying "No Parking, Fire Lane." A short ways up the trail/road, however, past the homemade "Private Property" sign, is an impromptu parking area that appears to have been in use for years, if not decades, complete with a "Woof Waste" dispenser, garbage receptacle and sign about trail rules, giving it the look of a sanctioned parking area.

The signs have raised a howl among hikers, who promise to resist and continue parking. One, Sheri Morgan, is organizing hikers and has retained legal counsel for a potential fight, claiming that “prescriptive rights,” the use of a space over the years by someone else (or the public), trumps the owner’s claim to suddenly exclude them.

She has written city officials, asking that the parking area be claimed for the public by using eminent domain.

Morgan says she hopes she will be arrested for trespass, giving her “standing” to fight the arrest and establish the Ditch Road — and parking area — for everyone. While the sign, apprently posted by Mary Chilton, the new land owner above the trail head, says “no entry,” Morgan and other hikers say it cannot refer to the road, only the parking area, which holds about 10 vehicles.

In any case, she contends, hikers have established use of the parking area (there is no other parking within half a mile) and that cannot be revoked by any landowner.

Morgan argues that since Parks & Recreation has put up doggie bag stations with trash cans and picks up the garbage, that underlines the fact of public usage. In addition, she says, the trek is the only flat one in the city, making it a haven for the handicapped.

On a recent day, Morgan actively pulled hikers over and explained the battle, noting “There are fewer cars here since the signs went up, but we have to keep parking here. If she can keep people away for a number of years, she can claim it. There is no other access than here.”

Hikers, who had seen, but ignored the signs for a week or two, agreed.

“I’ve been walking here 15 years,” said architect Heiland Hoff of Talent. “It’s public access land. It’s outrageous, someone trying to restrict public land. We’re not hurting her in any way. I have no intention to stop parking here. I’m happy to throw money at it. ... All this does is make her the pariah of the neighborhood.”

“She won’t win this,” said Morgan. Years back, she notes, her lawyer-husband established prescriptive easement rights in the U.S. Supreme Court, defeating a land owner who tried to close off Moro Beach, long used by the public, in California. She is distributing a statement citing Oregon state law that claimants may prevail if they have used the “easement,” adversely to the rights of of the owner for at least 10 years.

Dog walker Sarah Seybold said, “It’s outrageous. This is where we’ve parked forever. It’s about civility. This town is built on caring and kindness and sharing. It’s what we like about living in Ashland.”

Strolling with their dogs, Drew and Misty Willis said the Ditch Road has always been a “great hike for the dog” and, she notes, the new signs “are ridiculous. You don’t just destroy a neighborhood trail. One person shouldn’t be able to ruin it for everyone. We’ve been here a lot longer than her.”

Drew Willis adds, “It’s one of the few places you can take an animal in a very dog-unfriendly town.”

Hiker Sally O’Brien says, “It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense. What’s wrong with parking here? What a bummer. It’s such a beautiful trail. There is no where else for us to park.”

Dog-walker Peggy Farmer said she understands how a home owner would want some say in the parking close to her home, but the Ditch trail is about the only one shaded with running water in the whole town.

“We need to find a happy medium that honors both parties,” says Farmer. “I understand a home owner wanting relative peace.”

In an interview at their house above the Ditch Road, Rick McGrath said, “We’ve been talking to the city, trying, without this sort of thing happening, wanting to do it amicably. We’ve been concerned about liability.”

McGrath, in a phone interview, said, “We don’t want this to turn into a big fiasco. We don’t want to make enemies. We’re just concerned about private property issues and liability … My wife is upset about it. We bought this property and are concerned that the Ditch Road is public … We don’t know who is going to show up. It might be one in a thousand people. We’re right here. We know most people are good. We’ve met people that hike. It’s one in a thousand who might be devious. They’re not all friendly. Dogs aren’t on leashes. I don’t want to close the trail.”

County records show the property owner as the Mary Jane Chilton Trust since November 2016. The property includes the area on both sides of the north end of Ditch Road.

A statement by City Parks and Recreation Director Michael Black says the Ditch Road “is public property and the public has every right to use (it) to access the ditch trail … it’s true the parking area is on private property.”

He says the owner owns the land down to the Ditch Road and she is denying access. "Over time it looks like users have encroached on her property with the parking area. … We are working to try to settle this but it isn't as easy since it is clear that it is her property where people are parking.”

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org