As a child, cattle rancher Jim Gates remembers gathering around the woodstove to hear a tale from a distant relative about a stage coach road that crossed a parcel of land now owned by Ian Garfinkel. But now he believes the story was nothing but a myth.
Gates, the owner of Nevada County Free Range Beef, was the latest witness to testify in an ongoing civil case between Garfinkel and defendants Nevada County Land Trust and Bill and Anna Trabucco. Gates leases land from the Trabuccos to run his cattle.
Garfinkel is the owner of what he calls a landlocked piece of land that sits adjacent to land owned by the Trabuccos. He wishes to access his property by crossing the Trabuccos' land using roads he said have existed since the Gold Rush. The defendants argue no such roads exist and to allow access would invalidate a conservation easement.
Earlier in the week, an historian called on by Garfinkel's lawyer presented old assessor records from the 1800s showing taxed property owned by people who lived in structures around Garfinkel's property, said his wife, Susie Garfinkel. She contends if people lived on the property, they must have had a road to get there.
"It's undeniable. There were people here," Susie Garfinkel said. On Wednesday, Ian Garfinkel testified that several years ago Gates pointed to his property and told him an old stage coach road traversed it.
Gates, 58, has run cattle in the area since he was six years old. At Thursday's hearing Gates recalled hearing a story from his 80-year-old distant "shirt-tale" cousin when he was a boy.
"He told a story about this road," Gates said.
But the cowboy's years of working the land since then has disproved his cousin's story, Gates said.
"If there were a road out there, I would have seen remnants of that road," Gates said.
"I think he's conveniently changed his story," Susie Garfinkel said.
In the springs of 1989 and 1990, Gates helped the previous owner of the Trabucco property widen existing roads in order to remove trees burned by the 49er fire. Gates said a road built by the California Conservation Corps stops before it comes to Garfinkel's property. "The road just comes to an end," he said.
Garfinkel has bought two other landlocked properties in the past and settled out of court to gain access.
"People are spreading rumors that Ian has a big scam going on. That's baloney," Susie Garfinkel said. The Garfinkels said they have no intention of harming the conservation easement.
After Gates' testimony, a land surveyor questioned the accuracy of two historic maps presented by Garfinkel and showed maps from the same era that showed no roads on the properties.
Susie Garfinkel said at one time her family was friends with Gates but that has changed. "I understand he has an allegiance to the Trabuccos," she said.
The trial is expected to continue on Feb. 28, March 6 and March 20. An expert on deeds and titles will address the landlocked issue and show there is deeded access through Mountain Meadows.
The Trabuccos, a representative from the land trust and relatives of Gates will be called to the witness stand in coming weeks.