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    John Zisk stands near a spot where his father, William, intended to build a family home. In what the Zisks consider to be an act of betrayal, Roseville seized the land for recreation purposes via eminent domain. William Zisk fought in court, losing at every level, and the city's payment was never accepted.


    John Zisk continues the fight that his father, William, began in court and at City Council meetings after the council voted in 1973 to seize family property for a bike trail. The trail was built in 2009, a year after William Zisk's death.

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Death didn't stop 1973 Roseville land dispute

Published: Wednesday, May. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Jul. 8, 2012 - 3:28 pm

In December 1973, the Roseville City Council voted 4-1 to take through eminent domain 6.45 acres along Dry Creek that it wanted for a bicycle trail.

The decision didn't sit well with property owner William Zisk, who had planned to build his dream home on the property.

So Zisk fought back. He sought legal remedy, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He tried persuasion, attending nearly every council meeting to state his case. He never accepted the city's money for the land.

His determination was undampened by judges who ruled against him at every level or city officials who eventually just tuned him out.

The fight became a crusade, stretching into years, then decades. For 35 years, through eight presidents and 15 Roseville mayors, he fought on.

Even his death in 2008 did not mark an end. Zisk's legacy of anger lives on now through his son.

Quite often these days, John Zisk, 54, can be found beside the bike trail the city finally opened in 2009, trying to strike up conversations with bikers, runners and walkers who pass by.

He tells his listeners they are on private property.

"I say, 'Can you not walk on this trail and call the council and tell them you know what is going on?' " Zisk said.

It wasn't always destined to be this way. John Zisk left Roseville for many years, working as a printer at a newspaper in Marin County.

But in 2006, in the wake of a health scare and a divorce, he came back to Roseville.

He found that the city still hadn't built the trail that had been cited as the reason for taking the property 33 years earlier. And he found his father still engrossed in the fight to get the land back.

Within two years, first his mother, Lois, and then his father died. He began to feel that he had been brought back just in time to carry on.

"I can't just let their lives go, just swept under the carpet," he said.

Now, he has embraced it all, the legal arguments, the history, the story so long and complicated it has a life of its own.

Despite the history of losing in court, he insists he could win a legal case against the city, if only he had the $1 million he needed to pursue it.

"They didn't have a plan. They didn't have a public necessity. They didn't have an appraisal," Zisk said of the city's 1973 resolution. "They broke every eminent domain law. Not one of them, all of them."

Unable to pursue a lawsuit, he has mounted a public relations offensive.

Zisk spends hours telling anyone he can find, from council members to pedestrians on the trail, how he believes the city and courts have conspired to take what rightfully belongs to his family.

He speaks with passion and sincerity. The story has grown over the years – the complete version lasts three hours – from a straightforward legal dispute to a complex story of betrayal, collusion and official malfeasance.

At times it's hard to tell where the father leaves off and the son begins. He recounts conversations his father had in decades past, as if they were his own.

John Zisk was there for some of it, and he knows that the saga started much earlier than the council's 1973 vote. The true beginning was 1967, when William Zisk asked the city Planning Department's permission to build his dream home on a high spot along the creek's shore.

At the city's direction, the hard-driving man who ran a sand and gravel business spent seven years dredging the stream to increase its flow capacity, raising the banks and clearing undergrowth.

John Zisk remembers helping his dad dredge the creek. Reminders of the work surround the modest home farther back on the piece of the property that John Zisk still owns: a rusting backhoe, an aging dragline, his father's big rig gravel hauler.

In John Zisk's tale, the city was never playing fair. He said officials told William Zisk he'd done such a good job that they were going to have to take the much-improved section of property along the stream.

Of course, there's another side to the story.

Al Johnson held the city manager's job for 15 years, from 1988 to 2003, and he heard William Zisk's side of things many times.

"He just would not let it go. He just never gave up on that issue," Johnson said.

Johnson sloughs off John Zisk's suggestion that his father's legal efforts were thwarted at every step in the road by dirty judges and crooked lawyers. "Just because they don't rule with you doesn't mean they are conspiring against you," offered Johnson.

Current Roseville City Attorney Brita Bayless says the city's repeated victories in court make it a closed issue.

"That to me says whether or not it was the right process has been answered," she said.

And city spokeswoman Megan MacPherson likewise dismissed John Zisk's argument that Roseville's failure to open the bike trail until 2009 is evidence that taking the property wasn't really about a trail.

The city has had plans to build bike trails since the 1960s, MacPherson said. She said the program didn't get started in earnest until the 1990s, citing land acquisition, environmental permitting, and funding reasons for the lag.

She said the city started the environmental review of the trail along the Zisk property in 2000. The work was completed in 2009, over John Zisk's opposition.

William Zisk kept a copy of every document about the case during his 35-year fight. They can be seen on a website,, that John Zisk maintains as part of his campaign.

One legal expert who took a cursory look at the website didn't see bright legal prospects.

"Unfortunately for Mr. Zisk, most of his legal claims appear to be quite old, already litigated, and unsuccessfully so. Also unfortunately for Mr. Zisk, he chose to represent himself in some courts where he simply had no expertise and no chance of success," wrote James Burling, director of litigation for the Pacific Legal Foundation.

John Zisk is unconvinced and plans to fight on.

Like his father, he said he has no interest in the approximately $98,000 that the city tried to pay for the land.

For years, the money was kept in an account, waiting for a resolution, and in 1992 a check was cut for William Zisk and his wife. They did not accept it, and after a year the funds reverted to the state, the city said.

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