Central Valley

Trial starts today over access to the San Joaquin River

Trial begins today on a key San Joaquin River access dispute after settlement discussions ended without an agreement.

A partnership of three major builders will square off in a Madera County courtroom against many homeowners in the 49-lot Sumner Hill tract, a gated subdivision atop a bluff on the river's north side.

The main issue: whether a major project planned by the partnership can route trails and other public access through the subdivision to reach the river bottom.

Superior Court Judge James E. Oakley is scheduled to take up the case in a bench trial expected to last several weeks.

A second phase dealing with issues for a jury is scheduled Feb. 19 if the dispute is not resolved first.

Sumner Hill Homeowners Association President Bruce Cambern said recent settlement discussions appeared to be going well but never reached a conclusion.

"We get tantalizingly close, and then somebody says no," Cambern said.

McCaffrey Group attorney John Sanger declined to comment in detail on the pending case, but confirmed that the river access issue would be central to the proceedings.

"That has been a key issue from the very beginning -- the rights of public access to the San Joaquin River," he said.

The development proposed by the McCaffrey Group and two partners -- fellow home builder Gary McDonald and commercial developer Lyles Diversified -- would cover almost 1,600 acres of the Peck Ranch.

It lies east of Highway 41 on both sides of Road 204 in the Rio Mesa area, where plans call for some 100,000 new residents in coming decades on what is now mostly rolling grassland.

The fenced and gated Sumner Hill tract lies in the middle of the partnership's holdings. But plans for the partnership's new development include a trail, and possibly other access ways, that would pass through the tract to reach the river.

Homeowners who are fighting developers say that would threaten their security and solitude.

In the end, whether the trail and other access ways are built is likely to depend on how the court sorts out a complicated tangle of property rights, local land-use decisions and state subdivision law.

Oakley is expected to issue a ruling before the start of the second phase, which will focus on issues including allegations that some homeowners were harassed by the partnership's workers.