Parks department aggressiveness cost Yachats its beach access
Eager to get started on Smelt Sands Park, the state forcibly vacated Lincoln County's right-of-way on its 804 Road along the beach, and beachfront property owners quickly fenced it off. It took a 10-year legal battle to fix the problem.
By Finn J.D. John — October 29, 2017
The Oregon State Parks Department is not usually known for taking public access away from people. But with a hasty and heavy-handed move to establish Smelt Sands Park in Yachats, it did just that — and Yachats residents, for the next 10 years, lost their access to part of the shoreline as a result.
In the days of the pioneers along the Oregon Coast, the few residents in the area of what’s now Yachats got their supplies from Waldport, seven miles to the north. To get to Waldport, they traveled on the beach — part of the popular usage of beaches for transportation that led Governor Oswald West to officially designate them as state highways.
But when that sandy “highway” reached a certain point, close to what’s now Yachats, the beach ran out, and was replaced with a jagged line of rocky outcroppings jutting right into the sea.
Fortunately, just behind those rocks was a lovely flat shelf of land, and across that grassland there was already a footpath that paralleled the sea; the Native Americans of the area, faced with the same transportation challenges as the newcomers, had already solved the problem.
The settlers improved the trail to make it into a wagon road, and that wagon road became County Road 804. Yachats residents used it regularly until 1916, when an inland route was built (following what would later be Highway 101).
After that, the 804 road fell into disuse. But local residents continued to use it as a walking path — and, of course, any of them was welcome to bring a vehicle on it any time.
Half a century rolled by. Then, suddenly, everything changed. The Oregon State Parks Department wanted to develop a park at Smelt Sands, and the 804 Road bisected it. In order to legally make their park, they needed the county to vacate the right of way.
Well, the county didn’t move quickly enough for the parks department’s taste, so in 1977 they got heavy: They appealed to the state attorney general. The A-G responded with a ruling holding that because it had not been “maintained” since 1916, the 804 Road right-of-way was effectively vacated. Essentially, the A-G ignored the road’s considerable foot traffic, and, pointing to the absence of cars using it, claimed it had been abandoned.
And, just like that, the 804 Road was gone. In blissful and happy ignorance of the damage they’d just done, the parks department got started on Smelt Sands. And, of course, some of the property owners across on whose property the 804 Road had fronted now moved to exclude their neighbors from using it.
There followed a ten-year legal civil war in Yachats, pitting neighbor against neighbor. 804 Road partisans argued that a public easement already existed, independent of the road — essentially through squatters’ rights, because it had been in continuous unchallenged use for 60 years. What they hoped would be overlooked was the fact that the reason that use had gone unchallenged was that no one would ever challenge users of a county road the way they would squatters on private land.
804 Road opponents argued that it was now unencumbered private property, and vacating the road having extinguished the public’s right to use it, they were within their rights to decide if they’d allow access or not; and, furthermore, they argued that letting anybody cross their property would invite trouble and vandalism unless it were policed, which there were no plans to do. What they hoped would be overlooked was the fact that as far as anyone knew, no one had ever before tried to vacate a right-of-way for a road that was in active use.
Of course, the whole thing ended up in court. The result was a victory for the public-access side of the argument; the property owners appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling in 1985.
Finally, in 1990, after all the surveying and platting and planning was finished, the 804 Trail was handed off to the Oregon State Parks Department — and for the first time in 13 long years, residents of Yachats could walk the 804 trail unchallenged.
A half-dozen or so years later, after the wounds and scars of battle had healed, the department negotiated to acquire an oceanfront right-of-way south of Smelt Sands, to extend the 804 trail all the way to the Yachats River. This trail had to be partly routed on roads, but they’re nice quiet roads, and the overall experience isn’t much diminished.
Incidentally, it was on the original 804 Road, the three-quarter-mile stretch that’s now called the 804 Trail North, during an early-morning walk by the sea in the summer of 2008, that plans for the Offbeat Oregon History newspaper column were conceived and largely doped out.
On that day, I was staying with my family at the Overleaf Lodge — which stands right on the brink of that low bluff on which the 804 trail runs. At that time, I was still working as a copy editor for the Corvallis Gazette-Times — but I’d been accepted into the Literary Nonfiction master’s program at the University of Oregon, so I knew my life would be changing drastically in two months.
Early that morning, while the rest of the family was still sleeping, I slipped out of the room for a walk along the sea. I stopped in the lobby for a cup of coffee, and on the counter I found a stack of pamphlets produced by the hotel, which told the story of the 804 Road.
I read it by the early morning light as I started my walk. It started me to thinking. I had been working for 20 years as a writer of nonfiction. Now I was about to level up — joining a program in which I’d be doing nothing but telling those stories in longer and more complicated formats. This was exciting, but also a little daunting. Most nonfiction requires reporting skills, and I never have been a particularly talented reporter. I always made up for it with above-average writing and storytelling skills and by forcing myself way beyond my comfort zone; but I always knew it wasn’t a job in which I could really excel. How could I make a practice for myself of storytelling, working around such a critical weak spot?
It seemed to me that if I wanted to be a writer/storyteller not dependent on those shoe-leather reporting skills, I should develop an area of expertise, a storytelling franchise. And here was a great one, staring right into my face.
As I strolled along beside the sea, the unseasonably big breakers crashing on the rocks a few dozen feet from me, I thought about it. I had the local roots. I'd grown up in the woods outside the timber town of Molalla, surrounded by Blitz-drinking loggers, pot-smoking back-to-the-Land hippies, rodeo cowboys and retired Vaudeville players hiding from the world. Then my family had moved to Southeast Portland and I'd soaked up some other cultures: quirky mayors, working-class urban folks, fresh young proto-hipsters, preppies in loafers and sock ties. I’d worked in sawmills and I’d worked in newsrooms. I'd even helped build the Alsea Bay Bridge — a significant percentage of the rebar in that bridge went through the powder-coating machine which I was paid $4 an hour to operate back in 1988. All in all, I felt I had a pretty good basis for developing a real and fundamentally legitimate expertise in the story of my home state.
As I thought through the plan that was coalescing with uncanny swiftness in my mind, I remembered all the weird and quirky stories I had heard about Oregon: the exploding whale in Florence, the edgy Pixieland, the daredevil canoeist who paddled over South Falls in Silver Falls State Park. I knew there were more. I would dig them up and turn them into newspaper columns for the Gazette-Times. This would provide a thin trickle of income to help replace my salary, which would of course be going away when I went back to school, replaced with a wafer-thin stipend for my graduate teaching fellowship there. And it would give me the beginnings of a real, legitimate area of expertise.
And that is how Offbeat Oregon History got its very first start: as a weekly column in the Sunday edition of the Corvallis Gazette-Times called "Historic Oregon,” which led directly to the self-syndicated column that I launched three months later.
Well, maybe I would have hatched the same scheme if I hadn’t had the 804 Trail and its story to inspire me on that bright July morning, nearly 10 years ago. But I still love that trail, and stay in the Overleaf every chance I get so that I can walk on it.
(Sources: Tarrant, Marolyn Welch. “Oregon Spirit Kept Coastal Trail Open to the Public,” Eugene Register-Guard, 21 Jul 2013; Yachats Area Chamber of Commerce, yachats.org)