Madera County residents win river battle

Court: Developers must pay $3.2M to homeowners

The Fresno BeeMay 9, 2012 

FRESNO -- A Fresno appellate court has upheld a jury's award of more than $3.2 million to homeowners in a Madera County river bluff neighborhood in their nearly six-year legal battle against developers over San Joaquin River access.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal also affirmed Judge James E. Oakley's ruling in Madera County Superior Court in 2008 that the 49-lot Sumner Hill subdivision is a private, gated community that has exclusive rights to the river.

Therefore, it can bar the public from going through the subdivision to get to the river, the ruling said.

"It was an epic battle between David versus Goliath and the good guys won," said Fresno attorney Walter Whelan, who along with his attorney son, Brian Whelan, represented a majority of the homeowners.

The homeowners were pitted against a partnership of three major builders including the McCaffrey Group, which is headed by local builder Bob McCaffrey.

Around 2004, the McCaffrey Group and two partners -- fellow home builder Gary McDonald and commercial developer Lyles Diversified -- bought almost 1,600 acres of the Peck Ranch, east of Highway 41 on both sides of Road 204 in the Rio Mesa area.

The proposed development, known as Tesoro Viejo, called for about 5,200 homes, a trail, and possibly other public access ways that would pass through Sumner Hill to reach the river.

When McCaffrey made moves to prevent Sumner Hill residents from having access to the river and to record a public document inviting the general public to enter the private subdivision, the homeowners sued in October 2006.

The legal fight was important to the homeowners because for more than 20 years, they enjoyed the privacy of living in a remote, rural area, said Lynne Thaxter Brown, the appellate counsel for the homeowners.

Whelan and his son argued that the partnership had put up gates and hired security guards that in effect stopped Sumner Hill residents from reaching the river bottom. While the road was owned by the partnership, Whelan said, Sumner Hill residents had been granted use of the road.

The lead lawyer for the partnership, Gerald Murphy, said the actions were taken because of liability issues. He said the road -- which is owned by the partnership -- is in poor condition and is dangerous.

Whelan noted Monday that the partnership had three law firms to defend it. He called the homeowners, "the mouse that roared." Murphy, the partnership's attorney, said Monday that no decision has been made whether to appeal the Fifth District's ruling.

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