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A Utah judge has ruled in favor of anglers, kayakers and anyone wanting to recreate in the Weber River by saying the public has the right to access the riverbed on a contested 1-mile stretch of the river i n Summit County.
The stretch is adjacent to private property owners who had posted no trespassing signs in an effort to prevent access to the river.
In his decision, handed down Friday, 3rd District Judge Keith Kelly says that section of the riverbed is publicly owned and he will require the landowners to remove no-trespassing signs from their properties.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the Utah Stream Access Coalition whose group includes anglers, birders and paddlers which sought to confirm public ownership of the riverbed and the right to access it.
"This is a win for all Utahans," Kris Olson, the coalition's president, said in a news release. "We're grateful that the Court looked to history to fairly balance public recreational rights with private property rights."
The official order from Kelly is pending. So the coalition's board cautioned that it's too soon to start fishing or floating along that stretch of water, near Peoa and near where State Route 196 crosses the river.
The suit is part of a long battle pitting anglers against riverside landowners in Utah. In 2010, the state Legislature passed the Public Water Access Act, which allowed property owners to restrict access to streams crossing their land but only if the waterways are considered not navigable. Boaters can still float rivers through private land, but they may not stop or step on the bed or bank.
The owners along the mile-long stretch of the Weber River discourage floating and fishing by putting up no trespassing signs and stringing barbed wire across the river, according to the coalition.
The key issue at a five-day trial in March was whether the section of the river was considered "navigable" under a legal definition . At statehood, on Jan. 4, 1896, Utah gained sovereign title to the beds of all waters in the state then navigable.
According to the ruling, the test of navigability is whether the river at that location was used in its "natural and ordinary condition" as a highway of commerce at statehood in the customary modes of trade and travel over water. Kelly said it was.
Among the evidence cited by the judge was testimony on the history of statehood era commercial uses of the Weber River, which included floating logs and railroad ties, some of which passed through the landowner properties.
The private landowners have said logs don't count and that the river had to carry boats in its natural and ordinary condition to be considered navigable.
Anthony Schofield, an attorney for Orange Street Properties, one of the landowners, said his client has not yet decided whether to appeal.
"We are concerned that this ruling, which may impact more than a thousand landowners along the Weber River, sets a precedent that a landowner who acquired property many, many years ago, now is being told by the Court that he must allow fishermen, kayakers and other recreationists to access his private property for their own recreational pursuits," Schofield said.
Another coalition access lawsuit is slated to go to trial in August in 4th District Court. This suit involves the Provo River and seeks to overturn the 2010 Public Water Access Act and allow access to all waters.