A group of landowners in the Weber River Valley have asked the Utah Supreme Court to revisit a recent decision that permits the public to walk in publicly owned waterways — even if the area is on privately owned land.

Attorney Ronald Russell filed a petition for rehearing on behalf of the landowners, arguing that the reasoning behind the high court's ruling was legally unsound and "should not be the basis for destroying billions of dollars in property value throughout the state of Utah."

Outdoors enthusiasts, however, were pleased with the supreme court's decision, which they believe will open waterways to everyone for wading, walking and fishing in such areas. Previously, individuals needed to get permission from the landowner before going onto private land.

The case stems from a 2000 incident when Jodi and Kevin Conatser put a rubber raft into the Weber River from a public access spot and floated down the river to another public access point. While they were doing this, the couple touched the privately owned stream bed several times, were told by the landowners to leave and they refused, floating down to the next public access point where a Morgan County Sheriff's deputy cited them for criminal trespass.

The couple filed a civil suit in 2nd District Court asking for a judicial determination that they, as members of the public, had a right to walk on the riverbed. However, 2nd District Judge Michael Lyon ruled against the Conatsers, stating they could exercise only very limited rights regarding the stream bed such as touching it to get a raft unstuck.

The couple appealed the case and the supreme court ruled that Utah's water laws give the public an easement in state waters and the scope of that easement allows the public to engage in all recreation activities that "utilize" the water, not just activities that can be "performed" upon it.

Without the ability to touch the stream bed, individuals could not fully enjoy recreational use of the waterways that are owned by the public, the supreme court said.

Russell believes the high court "fundamentally misconstrued" the law of easements by recognizing a public easement in waters that the public already owns. An easement is a privilege that one person can enjoy over someone else's land, Russell wrote.

Russell also stated that the wide-reaching decision will affect landowners throughout the state who are not party to this particular dispute.


E-mail: lindat@desnews.com