Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Utah Lake's ever-changing shorelines are subject of a dispute between the state and private landowners. A series of hearings is planned.

Establishing property boundaries along the shores of Utah Lake is about as easy as chasing the shore itself.

A federal judge has assigned a special master, Brigham Young University law professor Michael Goldsmith, to take on the task of establishing the property boundaries along the shore of the lake. Goldsmith is expected to hold a series of hearings with attorneys for the state of Utah and private landowners, after which he will submit a report to U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball, who is expected to adopt the boundaries.

During a hearing Friday, assistant Utah Attorney General Michael Johnson said the case is difficult because the shores of Utah Lake see great fluctuations from decade to decade. The state contends that the legal boundaries should be the high-water mark when Utah became a state in 1896.

However, private property owners say that they have used shoreland for agricultural purposes for generations and that the boundaries should reflect their history of land use.

The legal battle over the shores of Utah Lake began back in 1997 when a landowner began to dredge a section of the lake, sparking action by state officials.

Environmental groups have stepped into the legal battle, saying the shore's wetlands are host to wildlife, including more than 40,000 migratory birds.

Specifically, the area of the lake at issue is land north of Provo Bay known as the Powell Slough area.

As part of their case, families who have farmed the land for generations submitted affidavits recalling uncontested use of the land from personal observation and knowledge from their ancestors. The state has objected to "anecdotal stories" of ancestors as hearsay and inadmissable in court.

Goldsmith mused that had their ancestors known that there would be a lawsuit 100 years later they would have thought to keep better records. However, he noted that any evidence of land use must be documented or come from personal knowledge. "Family lore" is not going to cut it as admissable evidence, he said.

The series of hearings may include tours of disputed lands. Goldsmith said the case is difficult and the fact that many lives had been spent investing in the land had not escaped him.

The hearings are expected to continue.

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