Calling a heated land dispute over a 10-foot-wide dirt path in Utah County a "mess," a federal judge on Friday urged both sides in the legal fight to try mediation before the situation further damages the community of Mapleton.

"This is not rocket science at this point; it's turning into a mess," U.S. District Judge Dee Benson told attorneys for Mapleton city and property owner Wendell Gibby. "Cooler heads need to prevail here."

At issue is a 2,000-foot-long strip of land in the middle of Gibby's 120-acre parcel that city officials claim has a public use right-of-way because it provides access to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and has been in use since the late 1930s. Gibby angered city officials when he disturbed the path by plowing the land and setting up a locked gate on the property.

Gibby claims the city is maliciously infringing on his land rights, including having him arrested by city police. Gibby's attorney, Dayle Jeffs, said his client spent four years and $100,000 fighting the city in justice court for a $50 infraction.

Gibby filed a suit in federal court, claiming his constitutional rights were violated by Mapleton city, including malicious prosecution, delaying the legal process, defamation and failing to comply with the state's open-records law. He also has a pending suit in state court, fighting the city's effort to condemn the property under eminent domain.

Andrew Morse, attorney for Mapleton city, said the criminal charge against Gibby was dropped after a judge threw out evidence against the property owner. Morse said the city "in good faith" believed the trail was a public road and took steps to preserve that and was therefore protected under governmental immunity.

Jeffs said the Bonneville Shoreline Trail did not exist and called it someone's "dream" of what they want. In addition, he said city officials encouraged trespassing on Gibby's property, cut locks and destroyed gates. Those actions, he argued, go beyond the scope of governmental immunity.

Benson called the city's prosecution of Gibby "outrageous" and described the city's zoning machinations to prevent development on the property as "unfair." The city, Benson said, should have straight-up offered fair compensation for the land in the beginning.

Benson said the fact that Gibby has sued several individuals over this has also had an impact on reaching a resolution, adding the fight between both parties was not good for the community of Mapleton.

In an effort to reach a resolution, Benson ordered mediation through U.S. District Judge David Sam, who is himself a Utah County resident. If mediation fails, Benson said he plans to issue a ruling within 60 days.


E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com