A Southern California developer has lost a five-year-legal battle to build a new road into Yosemite National Park after a federal court sided with environmentalists who opposed it.
The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that Lewis Geyser, 75, of Solvang, does not have the rights to two dirt roads dating back to the stage coach era of the 1870s that connect his property with the park -- a route that would have allowed tourists to enter Yosemite from a resort he has proposed to construct.
"We're certainly very pleased," said George Torgun, an attorney for Earthjustice, a public interest law firm that represented the Sierra Club and other environmental groups in the case.
"Yosemite is a national treasure. It's a place we don't want to see more roads constructed."
The roads are known as the Old Coulterville Road and the Crane Flat Road and go roughly from the town of Coulterville in Mariposa County through an 83-acre property known as Hazel Green that Geyser controls. They connect with Highway 120 near Crane Flat in Yosemite National Park.
Interestingly, one of the routes is believed to be the path that Sierra Club founder John Muir took when he hiked from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley on his first trip to the Sierra Nevada in 1868. Muir would later advocate for Congress to establish Yosemite as a national park.
The current controversy began in 1998, when Hazel Green Ranch LLC, a Delaware corporation
At one point, Yosemite park officials voiced support for the project, and said in 2000 that they wanted to work with Geyser to use the property as one of three large parking areas outside the park where visitors would have been required to leave their vehicles and ride shuttle buses into Yosemite Valley.
But that idea crumbled. It was part of the Yosemite Valley Plan, a sweeping effort to reduce the number of hotel rooms, parking spaces and other trappings of development in Yosemite Valley. But the plan became mired in lawsuits, and the idea of parking outside the valley was dropped.
Geyser nevertheless wanted the park to give him an easement over a quarter-mile section of park property between his land and Highway 120. When the park refused, he filed a lawsuit in 2007, claiming he had a legal right to the now-unused dirt roads under various easement laws.
In 2010, however, U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger ruled against him. Wanger also found that Mariposa County, which had joined Geyser in the suit, had not proven that the two roads -- which were built by private owners and operated as toll routes in the 1870s and 1880s -- are county roads.
Geyser appealed. On Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court upheld the lower court ruling in favor of the federal government and the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and Natural Resources Defense Council, which had joined the case.
Neither Geyser, or his attorney, Martin Pitha of Irvine, returned calls Tuesday seeking comment.
There are other routes from the property, which is surrounded by Stanislaus National Forest, to Highway 120. But they aren't as direct, and could be more costly to develop.
Rick Benson, the county administrative officer of Mariposa County, said Geyser has not submitted a development application for the resort project.
"I don't think he believes the project is viable unless he gets the road access," said Benson. "I think that's why he hasn't moved forward with the project yet."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN