Snyderville rancher fights for easement
Summit County could find itself facing another lawsuit if neighbors in the Snyderville Basin cannot iron out a dispute over water rights and a rancher’s ability to access a stream near Old Ranch Road.
County commissioners admit the erred when they gave up a parcel of land in the area in 2004.
"That was to be perpetual use for the public," Summit County Commissioner Ken Woolstenhulme said. "We made a mistake because we didn’t have all the facts."
Instead, longtime Basin rancher Mel Flinders is claiming he can no longer access a pump he uses to get water from a nearby stream because commissioners gave the county’s land to two of his neighbors.
"Give this property back to the community," Flinders told his neighbor, Bill Kearns, during a testy exchange Wednesday in Coalville. "Give it back to Summit County where it belongs."
State law dictates that land vacated by the government becomes property of the adjacent landowners.
"It’s a great land grab," protested Flinders. "Use common decency and give it back to the community."
Instead, Kearns, who received about half of the property when the county vacated the land, agreed this week to allow Flinders a 5-foot easement to cross his lot to access the creek.
But pumping from the stream must cease when Flinders no longer lives in the home, insisted Kearns, who has owned land in Snyderville for about five years.
"Is it unacceptable that I want your pump to go away?" Kearns asked Flinders as commissioners attempted to mediate the dispute. "If [you’re] not willing to give up a forever right (to pump) then we’ve got nothing to talk about."
Though once a hotbed for farming and ranching, as new residents have moved in near the edge of the Swaner Nature Preserve, Kearns says, "Times have changed."
"That’s not a ranching area anymore That’s a nature preserve," he said, adding, "I don’t want to see [the pump], smell it or hear it."
Flinders insisted Kearns provide a prescriptive easement for him to access the stream.
"A prescriptive easement does not go away upon the death of the original person," said Christian Hague, Flinders’ attorney.
But neighbor Janet Williams complained that Flinders broke the law when he pumped water from the stream without permission from the Utah Division of Water Rights.
"We’re all aggravated with it," Williams said. "Mr. Flinders was aware that he was doing something that was not legal."
Though Flinders claimed he has since obtained some rights to the stream, "this has not been an open and above board use," she explained.
"[Flinders] in good faith thought he had the water rights," Hague countered. "[The creek] has been used by the public and Mel and his family for over 50 years."
Flinders said he pumps water to his land from Kimball Creek through a 2-inch black plastic pipe.
"They’ve never had a legal right to pull water out of the creek," Kearns said, insisting Flinders should construct a well to water his fields. "To me it’s about money."
But a judge would side with Flinders by determining a prescriptive easement is "the right thing to do," County Commissioner Sally Elliott said.
"It’s pretty customary in Utah for a rancher to have long-term rights to divert water from a stream," Elliott said. "We know we made a mistake (but) there’s absolutely nothing that we can legally do to force everybody to do the right things."
Though the public was notified of the meeting in the newspaper, Flinders was reportedly not aware in 2004 that commissioners intended to vacate property used by citizens to access the stream.
"We know we made a mistake," said Elliott, who was not part of the County Commission at the time.
But according to David Thomas, the commission’s chief legal counsel, the statute of limitations has expired for a lawsuit to be brought against the county.
"This has been a great injustice," Flinders said. "Why did the county allow this to happen to begin with?"
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Coalville officials are holding a public hearing on Monday to discuss key governing documents for the Wohali development. The vote, if one occurs, will be a culmination of a yearslong approval process.