by Nick Gevock, Montana Standard
“A judge ruled this week that the public has the right to get to rivers from county bridges, but also determined landowners can attach fences to bridges in a split decision on a 4-year-old case out of Madison County.
District Judge Loren Tucker said in a case filed by the nonprofit Public Lands Access Association against Madison County that county road rights of way remain 60 feet wide across rivers. That means the public can use bridges to get to public waters under Montana’s stream access law.
James Kennedy, a Ruby Valley landowner and billionaire heir to a media fortune from Atlanta, Ga., an intervener in the case, and whose fences prompted the lawsuit, had argued that county rights of way narrow down to the actual bridge surface. He contended the land below the bridges was private property and therefore the public was trespassing when it crossed fences built up to a bridge.
‘His implicit argument is that a county road may not be utilized in the vicinity of water,’ Tucker said. ‘That argument is unsupported by authority or by logic.’ John Gibson, PLAA president, called the decision a major victory for Montanans.
‘It destroys some of the arguments that these people have made regarding the width of the right of way,’ he said. ‘The judge has definitely proven that access to the stream is a legal activity.’ The ruling is the latest salvo in a legal fight that has dragged on for longer than four years.
PLAA filed the lawsuit against Madison County in May 2004. The group blamed officials for allowing Kennedy to attach fences to bridges that were clearly meant to keep people from getting to the river.
Kennedy sued the county as well after it passed a policy allowing the fences in return for an access at each bridge. He later dropped that suit and the county rescinded its policy.