Litigation and bad behavior have become a way of life on Millers Gulch Road outside Rogue River, where an easement dispute between the property owners and a mining operation has dragged on for more than three years, sometimes turning violent.
"Somebody's going to get killed over this road," said one of the neighbors, Bob Caldwell Jr. "That's how bad it is."
The first mile of Millers Gulch Road, which is off Rogue River Highway near Valley of the Rogue State Park, traverses property owned by Dan and Sue Young. The couple have been locked in a legal battle over turnouts on the roadway with Magma Gold Inc., the owner of the Bristol Silica Quarry at the end of Millers Gulch. The Youngs, who have owned the property for 18 years, also have denied road access to nearby neighbors who don't have easements.
Neighbors came to blows in 2007, leaving one with a cracked skull and another with an arm gouged by gardening shears. Shots allegedly have been fired. And there have been confrontations with trucks using the road to get gravel from the quarry.
Disputes over road easements in Jackson County flare up frequently as questions arise over boundaries or vague agreements that may have been made a 100 years ago.
Most of the time they are settled, county officials say. But sometimes, as in the case of the Youngs versus Magma Gold, they must be resolved by the courts. According to the Jackson County District Attorney's Office, two or three cases in which a civil property disagreement turned criminal pop up each month.
"I think disputes over easements are very common," County Surveyor Kerry Bradshaw said. "You hear about them weekly."
Decades ago, the exact location of an easement wasn't that important for a couple of friendly landowners.
"It used to be just a handshake," said Bradshaw. "Now, it's got to be very black and white."
In the past, landowners often would move roadways regardless of easements because the rains would wash out the old tracks.
Bradshaw recalled one Phoenix property owner who wanted to develop a portion of a public right of way that was originally designated for an extension of Valley View Road. When the survey was conducted, the right of way was actually 200 feet from the existing roadway, Bradshaw said.
Property disputes tend to occur more often in rural areas, Bradshaw said.
"In urban areas, they don't get too upset about things being a half-foot off, but you get out in the country, and they will fight over an inch in a half-mile-long boundary," he said.
Who's at fault on Millers Gulch is still being played out in the courts, as the Youngs contend the mining operation has illegally widened an easement on their property. They also have warned nearby property owners who don't have an easement not to ride their horses or motorcycles on the road.
The Youngs face misdemeanor charges for various disorderly conduct and reckless driving incidents this year. They say the charges are based on overblown and unfounded statements and that initial misunderstandings with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department unfairly led to the charges levied against them.
They note a 2007 incident in which they said a front-end loader from the mine crashed into their truck. The court, however, found the Youngs' truck crashed into the loader, a ruling they continue to dispute.
"My husband's been beat up, arrested, shot at and run into," said 53-year-old Sue Young. "What's next — oh, yes, he's been sued."
Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Mark Schiveley has ruled in favor of Magma Gold's right to various turnouts along the road. Schiveley walked the roadway in an attempt to determine its boundaries, then ordered a survey.
In a Nov. 24 opinion, Schiveley said based on the Youngs' actions over the past year, he would have granted Magma Gold's earlier request for an injunction against the couple preventing them from interfering with the mining operation.
The Youngs' attorney, Mark Haneberg of Medford, will attempt to change the judge's mind about the turnouts when he appears in court Monday. If that isn't successful, the Youngs have vowed to appeal because they see the judge's decision to allow Magma Gold to access the turnouts as an unfair taking of their property.
Legal debates over Millers Gulch can be traced back to 1976, when a judgment was rendered affirming the center line of the roadway, but no clear determination was made at the time about the width of the road.
Haneberg said the roadway width has changed over time through various court decisions. One portion was 23 feet in 2002, then a court judgment in 2008 ruled it was 30 feet and now it is 38 feet wide, according to a survey last June.
Haneberg said the dispute over the easement on Millers Gulch has become obscured by neighborhood confrontations and other side problems that have erupted.
He said the basic issue is the mining company has taken more of the roadway than it should be entitled to according to the 1976 survey.
"In any case you've got this conflict that has turned bloody, even deadly," Haneberg said.
He said his clients got off on the wrong foot with the sheriff's department because deputies thought the private road was a public right of way.
"Somehow the police have made these people outlaws," said Haneberg, who has posted no-trespassing signs along the roadway. The signs have been defaced, he said.
His clients' blunt, no-nonsense demeanor hasn't helped the situation, Haneberg said. "They failed the attitude test with the sheriff's (deputies)," he said.
Haneberg said he was reluctant to take on such a complicated case initially, but when he saw the damage to the truck, he concluded it couldn't have run into the front-end loader. The damage was to the driver's side fender, not to the front of the truck, which sits in the Youngs' driveway. That kind of damage couldn't have been inflicted by a truck ramming a front-end loader, Haneberg concluded.
Her husband said disputes over the road with neighbors below him led to the fight in 2007, which landed him in bed for a week after he was punched and fell to the ground, cracking his skull.
At first he didn't think he was badly injured, but ultimately he sought medical care. "If I hadn't gone to the hospital, I would be dead," he said.
"It sounds like a bad movie," Sue Young acknowledged, adding it probably didn't help when she called deputies "Nazis" when they surrounded her house.
Kendell Jackson, a Grants Pass attorney for Magma Gold, said neither she nor her clients would comment on the case.
In a court affidavit filed in June 2007, Janice Perttu, who leases the mine along with her husband, Rauno, stated the easement is about one mile long and averages about 20 feet wide, with three turnouts.
Perttu described various attempts by the Youngs to block access to the turnouts and confront customers with vulgar and profane protests.
"I am afraid if defendants persist, their behavior will become more violent and someone will get hurt," Perttu stated.
Sheriff Mike Winters said his deputies have responded to multiple complaints on Millers Gulch over the years.
In his years of experience, he said some property owners continue to think they control the road even though easements have been granted.
"The thing people can do is use your attorneys and use the court system and don't take the law into your own hands," he said. "Don't let anger cloud your judgment."
Winters said he doesn't know all the particulars of the Youngs' situation, but he said anyone who uses the court system over and over should review their own behavior.
Deputy District Attorney Laura Abraham said the charges against the Youngs are not major crimes, but involve such allegations as spraying someone with a high-pressure hose and throwing gravel at a car.
Generally in property disputes, Abraham said, it's one incident that erupts, leading to a charge filed against a property owner. In this case, there are seven separate charges against Dan Young and two against Sue Young.
"It's a strange situation," she said. "It's an example of where a civil problem can become criminal when people take things into their own hands."
Caldwell, a neighbor who said he saw the fight between Dan Young and another neighbor, said he didn't want to take sides in the controversy, but he believes the dispute has turned ridiculous.
"I think it is at the point that both sides have decided that no matter what the cost they are going to be the victors in this," he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.