How a fight over 1,000 feet of Bay Area road led to lawsuits and allegations of corruption

Feud centers on whether a small portion of Alameda County road should be ceded to a private landowner

The final 1,000 feet of a remote stretch of road outside of Fremont has become an unlikely battleground for public access in the Bay Area, with accusations of county corruption and even attempted restraining orders.

The plot revolves around Morrison Canyon Road, a rural road that leads to CEO and rancher Christopher George’s sprawling estate.

It’s also the gateway to the relatively new Vargas Plateau Regional Park, a popular hiking, biking, and horseback riding destination.

George fought park officials over road safety and parking concerns over the years, resulting in a nearly decade-long battle that delayed the park’s opening, reduced parking spaces, and required the East Bay Regional Park District and the City of Fremont to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on road improvements. Following a series of lawsuits, the park reopened permanently in 2017.

However, the battle appears to have moved to the final round.Morrison Canyon Road is 2 miles long.

In recent months, a member of the Mission Peak Conservancy, a local public access advocacy group, obtained an email from a county employee, Shawn Wilson, advocating for “abandoning the right of way” so that the final 1,000 feet of road could be ceded to George via a public records request.

Wilson wrote in the email that George expressed concern that the road was becoming a haven for illegal dumping, drug deals, sex, and crime, and that the county had “no need for the road.”

Kelly Abreu, a member of the Mission Peak Conservancy, claimed the email was a “pay for play” scheme. In 2022, George’s company contributed $10,000 to the campaign of Supervisor David Haubert, for whom Wilson serves as Chief of Staff. This, according to Abreu, had happened before: in 2016, an Alameda County grand jury found that Wilson, then a staffer for Supervisor Scott Haggerty, had lobbied county staff to make decisions that benefited the supervisor’s donors.

Wilson told this news organization that he was simply relaying a request from a constituent and was surprised that it had raised any suspicions of malice.

“I was just doing my job, I just asked the question,” said Wilson. “I didn’t think this would be something reportable in the news.”

Wilson claims that it is not uncommon for the county to “deed over” land to a landowner who is then required to maintain it in perpetuity. He said he forwarded the request to Alameda County’s public works director, who said the road was remote and he didn’t “want to go take care of it anyway.”

“I don’t think it’s inappropriate for anyone to make an ask of our office,” Mr. Wilson said.

Aside from the allegations of unethical behavior, Abreu stated that, while the final 1,000 feet of road may appear insignificant, it is a popular recreational area that requires county oversight.

“It’s not used for late-night rave parties.” “It’s not a hangout for drug dealers,” Abreu explained. “People are walking it every day with their dog and riding bicycles for exercise.”

To give up the road, Abreu claims, would be to give in to wealthy landowners who, he claims, have tried to limit public access throughout the Bay Area. A wealthy enclave near Mission Peak has worked to limit parking at one of the popular hike’s trailheads. California sued a Silicon Valley billionaire in 2020 for obstructing access to a beach south of Half Moon Bay. The New York Times reported in February that private landowners were restricting access to hundreds of thousands of acres of public land in the Bay Area and California.

Still, Wilson believes Abreu is motivated by a personal vendetta against George rather than a genuine concern for the road or county ethics.

“It’s very ironic that this yahoo who posted this on Facebook is the same guy who just lost a lawsuit,” Wilson said in a statement. “This guy has harassed [George’s] family, flying drones over his property.”

After a fight on Morrison Canyon Road in 2018, George filed for a temporary restraining order against Abreu. Abreu claimed he was flying a drone over George’s property to photograph the construction of a “banquet hall” that he believed required an environmental impact report. George classified the structure as an agricultural barn.

According to Abreu’s account, George stormed out of his house and blocked Abreu’s car. George claimed in his restraining order request that Abreu initiated physical contact between the two men, which Abreu denies.

George did not respond to comment requests for this article.

It remains to be seen whether George’s request will be granted. Alameda County counsel is currently reviewing the application to cede the 1,000 feet.

“People will take whatever they can get. That may or may not be illegal. But it’s really bad that our county government can’t figure out that this is a hiking-biking-walking trail,” Abreu said.

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