Public Land v. Madison Co., DA-12-0312 2014 MT 10, Montana Supreme Court
Public Land v. Board of Commissioners Madison Co., DV-29-04-43, Jun. 27, 2016 District Court
In 2004, Mr. James Cox Kennedy, an out-of-state landowner, on the Ruby river in Madison County, took action to stop the public from entering the river on his property. Three public road bridges cross the Ruby river on the ranch, had been used frequently by anglers for decades. Fences at the bridge abutments on Duncan Road, Lewis Lane, and Seyler Lane were wired up to keep people from accessing the river – including electric fences at some places. This infuriated local anglers and floaters who organized a symbolic “float in” to bring attention to the situation. PLWA, not wanting to see this go unchecked, brought action against the Madison County Commissioners to require them to stop Mr. Kennedy’s actions. The lawsuit demanded that the county recognize that the road right of way did not narrow at the bridges and was in fact the statutory 60 ft. – per Montana Attorney General Joe Mazurek’s ruling of May 2000. It also asked that the court recognize that fences to the abutments were encroachments of the right of way under existing Montana statutes. Mr. Kennedy brought a counter claim in the matter and a watershed case was in the making. Joining Kennedy as intervenors were the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Hamilton Ranches.
On September 30, 2008, Judge Tucker ruled in favor of PLWA, that the width of road right of way on Duncan Road and Lewis Lane was indeed 60 ft. “Duncan District Road and Lewis Lane is granted to the extent that the public may utilize any portion of the 60 foot right of way regardless of the Ruby River intersection with it and subject to law-full management by Madison County Commissioners.” The easement is 60 feet in width unless specified in the original acceptance document issued by the county. It follows then that there is no pure private land within the width of the easement and all lands therein are subject to the easement provisions which allow public passage. The fact that the river bottom is owned by the landowner does not prohibit the public from accessing the river where the road and water easements intersect.
The Judge Tucker did not rule on the width of right of way on Seyler Lane, since it was a prescriptive easement. The Seyler Lane case would not be concluded until the fall of 2016.
The ruling in this 2008 case led directly to the passage of HB 190 in the 2009 legislature, which, in effect, put the judge’s ruling into law.
In spring 2017, PLWA contacted FWP about the narrow, restricted and unsafe public access on Seyler and Lewis Lane bridges. On May 4, 2017, FWP met with various members of the public to discuss “safe and convenient” public access. During the summer, FWP completed the fencing access project on the north and south side of Lewis Lane, including a roller bar for boats. Seyler Lane will have spring gates installed in the spring of 2018.