ATHOL – Homemade barricades springing up on Sheep Springs Road have sparked a lawsuit as the Lakes Highway District and neighborhood landowners tussle over whether the narrow, 4-mile stretch of gravel just northwest of Athol is public or private.
If deemed public, the highway district wants landowners barred from putting roadblocks of boulders and barbed wire across the the route, which turns into Rose Mont Drive. But at least three of 28 landowners have put up barricades, and one said the public has no reason to use the road other than to make “mischief.”
The controversy pivots on county records from May 6, 1899. That’s when the Board of Commissioners approved citizens’ requests to survey the road, then known as Athol Road, and to log it in the official Index of County Roads as a public thoroughfare.
Trouble is, the survey is missing from the county’s vault, and no one knows what happened to it, according to the lawsuit the highway district filed Sept. 17 in Kootenai County District Court.
Sheep Springs Road resident Tom Drake said he’s one of three property owners blocking traffic. He rolled boulders and stretched barbed-wire fence across the lane that leads to his house, he said. Just up the road, he said, someone else has also strung barbed wire, as well as electric fence.
“I think the people who want to cut through are just up to mischief,” Drake said. “They’re either coming in here to poach, go four-wheeling or they’re looking for something to steal.
“There’s been a big problem with litter. Lots of beer cans and trash, people stopping in the road and taking a dump and used prophylactics. And the dust is just horrible, and nobody has the courtesy to slow down,” Drake said.
He said he was with a group of property owners who were told at a meeting with the highway district about eight years ago that the road was private. An official told the group that Sheep Springs Road “is not a county road, never has been a county road, and we were on our own for maintenance,” Drake recalled.
Landowners were also told they could name the lane, set the speed limit and put up a blue street sign, which designates the road as private, he added.
Even the U.S. Postal Service considers the road off-limits. Carriers don’t deliver mail on Sheep Springs Road because it’s not maintained by the county, said the officer in charge of the Athol post office. Drake said neighbors don’t really need access to the old road because now they can get home on a nearby paved road that’s maintained by the highway district.
According to the lawsuit, “there have been verbal altercations about the nature and use of the roadway, and the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department has been called by individuals regarding obstruction of the road.”
Because deputies are unsure of the road’s status, they asked the highway district for guidance. That led to the legal action.
About 28 landowners are named in the dispute. They have until the end of the month to enter their responses.
Drake, who’s maintained the road near his place, said in the past he approached neighbors more than once about forming a road association and sharing responsibilities to keep the road open to traffic but that they wouldn’t hear of it.
“I got fed up with doing all of (the upkeep) and everybody else taking advantage of it,” he said.
“I’d like to see the road opened up, made private and see everybody (who owns land along it) to contribute” to its maintenance, Drake said.
Joe Wuest, the highway district’s road supervisor, said he imagines the obstructions will be removed eventually. But even if the court determines Sheep Springs Road is a public road, he doesn’t think the county will maintain it.