A scene remarkably reminiscent of a 1960s war protest unfolded Wednesday morning in the tiny mountain hamlet of Pine.
Nick Berezenko --pset that Gila County refuses to maintain the narrow, dirt road in front of his home on Hillside Road -- put up a roadblock and began charging motorists a toll to drive on it.
"Ron Christensen (District 1 Board of Supervisors vice-chairman) has said the roads (in the subdivision) are private, so if they are private, I'm going to charge a toll," he said.
As motorists approached the roadblock, which was made of two metal garbage cans and a protest sign, some paid the toll, while others refused.
Berezenko told the drivers the fee was whatever they could afford, but if the vehicles were industrial trucks, especially from any of the Randall enterprises, they would be or were charged a greater amount.
One pickup driver, from a construction company, drove through the roadblock shouting, "Kiss my ... ."
Not long after the roadblock was set up, Gila County Sheriff's deputies, Pine Fire Department personnel, county road workers, KMOG radio station and at least two supporters of Berezenko arrived at the roadblock.
The first deputy to arrive was Bob Bonney. Later, Undersheriff Tom Melcher was on the scene.
The deputies asked Berezenko to take down the roadblock, saying he was breaking the law by obstructing a public thoroughfare.
"He felt he was justified, but there were a lot of things he could be charged with including refusing to obey a lawful order of a law officer and maybe even extortion," Bonney said.
Initially, Berezenko -- an acclaimed photographer whose work has appeared in Arizona Highways -- refused to discontinue the roadblock, saying he wanted to get arrested.
During the discussion, the pickup truck that had gone through the roadblock earlier returned and sped through, destroying the protest sign.
Deputies on site chose not to chase or stop the driver.
"He (Berezenko) looked at me like I should do something," Bonney said. "But he was the one breaking the law."
Bonney and Melcher continued their discussion with Berezenko, encouraging him to shut down the toll road protest.
After deputies told Berezenko that if he was arrested, he would not be allowed to plead his road maintenance cause in court, the protester complied with requests to discontinue the roadblock.
"My idea was to get to court where I could publicly state our (road) problems," Berezenko said. "If I couldn't do that, there was no use in having the roadblock or going to court.
"I'm too poor to afford lawyers," he said.
Making protest plans
Berezenko's roadblock scheme was detailed in an Aug. 20 letter he wrote to Christensen.
"I will close off and make South Road a toll road for the purpose of obtaining money to fix Hillside Road," he wrote. "I will be sure to get the message out that you have not dealt with us fairly."
The problems began in 1996 when, Berezenko claims, the county stopped maintaining Hillside Road.
On Oct. 29, 1996, Berezenko wrote a letter to Christensen in which he claimed that for more than 20 years Hillside Road was expertly maintained by the county.
He also wrote, "Sometime within the last three years, you apparently gave the order that the county should discontinue servicing the road."
Berezenko said he has been told the reasons for not maintaining Hillside Road is that it is a private road and not the responsibility of the county.
However, he was able to produce a Gila County Plat dated Nov. 16, 1961 which states Hillside Road has been "Dedicated to the public."
Christensen said, for the county to maintain Hillside it must be a legitimate public roadway. It does not meet the county's criteria because when the subdivision had its origins, in about 1958, there was no planning or zoning and portions of Hillside Road are actually on private property.
"People will have to give up part of their property to get the road corrected," Christensen said. "Some have refused to do that."
Their refusal, Christensen added, means the county cannot maintain the road.
For the past eight years, Berezenko and his neighbors have negotiated with county officials, including Gila County Public Works Project Manager Jerry Farr; Deputy County Attorney Mark Gunning; Deputy Director of Public Works Steve Sanders; and Christensen hoping they could be persuaded to maintain Hillside Road, which has been called by Berezenko "in deplorable condition and hazardous to drive."
In a letter to Christensen, Berezenko accused the supervisor of not acting in good faith, and of other misdeeds.
Christensen responded "I do not appreciate, nor do I think that your intimidation and threatening to take legal action will in any way resolve this matter. Your accusations are unfounded and have no basis in fact ... it appears your imagination has gone awry."
With the protest at an end, Berezenko isn't sure that his cause was greatly served by it, but he's not about to call it quits.
"I'm going to ask to be put on the agenda for a board of supervisors meeting," he said.
Berezenko did, however, apologize to any innocent residents affected by the roadblock.
In a letter to the Payson Roundup, he wrote:
"I would like to publicly apologize for the inconvenience I caused to innocent people by my closure of South Road.
"My action was a protest against the unresponsiveness of Supervisor Christensen and county officials and was caused by the extreme frustration I felt in being denied my rights as a citizen. The county has put the homeowners of Pine Creek No. 1 in legal jeopardy by refusal to clarify the legal status of our roads. We do not know if we can be sued for any accidents on our roads, if we're allowed to maintain them ourselves, or whose responsibilities the roads are. County officials simply refuse our request for this information or do not respond at all. This is what caused my protest. But I should not have involved innocent citizens in the protest. For that, I am sorry and sincerely apologize."