Fight over Utah Lake shore access resumes
(Note: "The special master will serve, in effect, as a judge, holding hearings, taking testimony and sifting through evidence. Selected by [U.S. District Judge Dale] Kimball, the special master makes a recommendation to the judge, who renders a final decision. "Special Master," eh?)
December 5, 2003
By Judy Fahys
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake City, Utah
To submit a Letter to the Editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
Boaters, bird-watchers and other public users of Utah Lake will get another day in court to defend their right to frolic in areas that lakefront property owners claim as their own.
U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball ruled last week that the state can try to make a case that it still owns thousands of acres of disputed land along the lake's edge.
The key word there is "edge," given that the state and the property owners have been fighting on and off for decades over exactly where the boundary lies between private property rights and public rights.
Lawyers for the state, insisting the relevant Utah Lake high-water line should be set at somewhere between 4,489 and 4,492 feet above sea level, say as much as 20,000 acres are at stake.
The state is supported in the case by wildlife and recreation groups, including the National Audubon Society, as well as a few individuals.
Property owners contend that only 6,000 acres are in dispute, based on a lake boundary of 4,481 feet above sea level.
Both sides called Kimball's November 26 ruling a victory.
The state's job will not be easy: One of its attorneys previously signed papers with some of the lakefront landowners that specifies the boundary at the 4,481 level.
Under the gaze of a yet-to-be-appointed "special master," lawyers for the state now face the task of disputing the validity of that agreement by demonstrating that the boundary belongs at a higher level than the attorney once settled on.
The state will rely on old photos and weather records, as well as historic use patterns of the lakefront property owners who say they have been farming and otherwise using the disputed land since the state's founding.
The special master will serve, in effect, as a judge, holding hearings, taking testimony and sifting through evidence. Selected by Kimball, the special master makes a recommendation to the judge, who renders a final decision.
A loss for the state in this case means less public access to key hunting, fishing, bird-watching and boating areas, such as Powell Slough near Provo Bay, important habitat to more than 40,000 migratory birds.