May 23, 2023
Thanks to the relentless efforts of Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes and the Constitutional Defense and Special Litigation Division, the Utah Supreme Court decided in favor of private property rights in the case of Utah Stream Access Coalition v VR Acquisitions, affirming the lower district court’s finding in this matter.
In an opinion by Chief Justice Durrant, the Utah Supreme Court ruled for the State’s position on behalf of VR Acquisitions. The dispute arose after the Utah Legislature passed the Public Waters Access Act in 2010, which stated, in part, that individuals are generally unable to access or use public waters on restricted private properties for recreational purposes. After years of litigations through Utah state courts, the singular question the Court considered for this case, involving a trespassing charge in the Provo River on VR Acquisitions’ domain, was as follows: was there a 19th-century (or pre-Utah statehood and constitutional) basis for an easement providing the public with the right to touch privately owned streambeds underlying state waters?
The Utah Supreme Court concluded that no easement was established for the waters in question when Utah achieved statehood and enacted its constitution. Thus there was no continuous, historical, constitutional claim to the waters to be used for recreational purposes. The Court also noted that the issues raised by Utah Stream Access Coalition should be brought before the Legislative Branch.
While this case may seem very technical and nuanced, it has massive implications for private property rights across Utah. Over 2,700 miles of these rivers and streams are largely restricted for recreational use and access – though Utahns have thousands of miles of waters to choose from instead should they desire to take advantage of the state’s natural resources for their pleasure.