In a recent ruling in an important case involving stream access, District Court Judge Loren Tucker in Madison County determined that issues concerning the balance of private property rights and prescriptive easements must be determined on a case-by-case basis, using evidence of County maintenance needs. The public’s desire for access is not a factor.
Judge Tucker’s determination was made at the request of the Montana Supreme Court, which concluded that a public right-of-way exists on the Seyler Lane bridge which crosses the Ruby River in Madison County. While the Public Land/Water Access Association (“PLWAA”) have been eager to claim that Judge Tucker’s ruling was a victory for anti-property rights groups, the decision and its consequences are not so clear-cut.
In the dispute between PLWAA and Madison County it was noted that while most county roads have a right-of-way of 60 feet that is established through dedication of a public easement, Seyler Bridge was established through prescription (i.e. continuous public use) not dedication. PLWAA argued that the public should be granted a 60-foot easement to be used for public access to the river. Judge Tucker rejected that claim and instead granted a 5-foot easement on either side of the bridge, stating:
“Madison County and the State of Montana via their agents have traveled upon a strip of ground between the abutments and the high water marks of the river extending an average of approximately 5 feet upstream and downstream from the ends of the bridge abutments. These distances inform the court of that which is reasonably necessary for use, maintenance and enjoyment.”