INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. (AP) — After hiking up a 20 percent grade about 1,300 feet above Lake Tahoe, Dan Dominy stopped to admire the view.
Dominy and the rest of his group had crossed private property owned by David Duffield, the billionaire founder of PeopleSoft, to get to the massive steel wheel and timbers that were once part of the Incline Flume, which moved logs up the mountainside from a mill near the lake in the late 19th century.
"We all have seen the photos but you don't get it if you don't touch that lumber," Dominy said about the Incline Bull Wheel.
The Bull Wheel as well as a portion of the Incline Flume Trail, a smooth, level hiking and biking trail that goes between Mt. Rose Highway and the popular Tunnel Creek Road, are on a 16.5- acre parcel Duffield wants to give to Washoe County, opening it for recreationists. The idea is popular with bikers and hikers who see it as an important link between destinations in some of the nation's most scenic country.
"It wouldn't be Incline Village without it," said Dominy, an Incline Village resident since 1990 and member of Friends of Incline Trails, of the significance of the flume remnants.
But there's a catch. In exchange for the private property with the historic flume parts and scenic trail section Duffield wants the county to give him an 8-foot-wide slice of public property on the shore of Lake Tahoe. The public property bisects Duffield's private lakeside land, a 12-acre estate with about 1,800 feet of shoreline that previously belonged to James Stack Sr., a prominent advertising executive in the 1920s and father of actor Robert Stack. Duffield bought the property after James Stack Jr. died.
They accuse the technology entrepreneur of trying to use his money and influence to push the county into making the land swap. The Washoe County Commission recently voted unanimously in favor of appraising the properties for a potential deal, with Duffield covering the estimated $25,000 cost. It will likely be months before the process is complete and the issue can go back to the commission for a decision.
"This proposal was knowingly designed to create friction. The proponents have bought the support of mountain bikers," resident Ronald Code told the commission before the vote. "This is deliberate, calculated and damages our sense of community."
Duffield's supporters say the notion they're buying support is absurd.
Dominy, who knows his way around Tahoe area trails as well as anyone, said bikers and hikers have long envisioned legal access to a completed Incline flume Trail and a historic Nevada artifact.
Currently, people who reach the property from either Tunnel Creek or Mt. Rose Highway are greeted by no trespassing signs. Some ignore them and pass through anyway. But Dominy said legal public access would benefit people who don't want to break the law and allow trails groups to work with public agencies to do trail improvements.
"When a tree goes down we can't cut the tree out, it is against the law," Dominy said. "The Forest Service has been working with us but ... they won't do a trail that goes to nowhere."
But the neighbors say they don't want their rights sacrificed to appease Duffield and trail enthusiasts. They say the county strip was part of the original subdivision that dates back to the 1920s and should remain in the hands of the public.
They envision building a staircase from the road to the beach, the public portion of which is between two private piers and staked off with rope.
Code said the reason no one bothered to develop the access point previously is because there didn't seem to be a pressing reason.
"We always thought we could do it next year," Code said.
Ann Nichols, a real estate agent, said residents only recently began raising money to build some stairs.
"We never really fretted about it until they tried to take it away," she said.
The dispute has gone beyond words.
Neighbors say in recent weeks they've seen an increase in police patrols and encounters with property caretakers when they approach the disputed area.
"Duffield has made this place a police state," Nichols said.
But Duffield's supporters say there's good reason to be on the lookout. Although the county has posted a sign stating the property is dangerous due to the steep grade, someone went on the land at night and illegally cut down the brush to create a clearer route from the road to the water.
Bill Whitney, director of planning for Washoe County, said the damage is being investigated by police. He also characterized the land as "highly problematic" and said it would be impractical to install a stairwell to the lake.
"They would be expensive and it would be difficult," he said.
In 2007 the county planning commission rejected a request from the previous owner for an abandonment of the strip of land, Whitney said. In essence, the then-owners wanted the county to hand over the lakefront slice for free, he said. It didn't fly.
"It is simply a very rare thing, public access to Lake Tahoe in Washoe County," Whitney said.
But Duffield's offer is different, he added.
"The only thing that has changed is the new property owner is offering up a historic item and a piece of trail people want," Whitney said.
Elizabeth Tuoto, who works for Duffield's Nevada Pacific Development Corporation disputed the residents' depiction of Duffield as uncaring or insensitive to the community. During the hike to the Bull Wheel she said Duffield just wants a solution that makes his lakeside property more private and safe and provides a fair return to the public.
"The man who owns this property, regardless of what you might have heard, is a very nice person who loves the woods, loves the trees and the animals," Tuoto said. "He is just asking for privacy and peace of mind over there, like anybody else would."
Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com
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