Panel OKs bill giving rafters permission to cross private land

DENVER — Rafting companies would be allowed to cross private land whether property owners like it or not under a bill that won approval in a House committee Monday.

House Bill 1188, introduced by Rep. Kathleen Curry, U-Gunnison, stemmed from a recent announcement from a Texas developer, Lewis Shaw, that he no longer would allow two rafting companies to traverse two miles of his land along the Taylor River.

Shaw, who plans to build ranch estates along the river, told the House Judiciary Committee he gave the rafters a year’s notice.

“This is a case of, ‘Do good fences make good neighbors?’ ” he said. “We have enjoyed being very good neighbors, but I think I’d like a good fence, too.”

But the committee said that proverbial fence is meant to keep people out of private property. Water flows in rivers owned by the public. It approved the bill 7-3.

The issue is not a new one to Colorado rafters, who have battled with landowners for years over the right to float on publicly owned water that happens to traverse private land.

Other states in the West have sided in favor of rafters, but Colorado law has been unclear on the matter.

A 1979 Colorado Supreme Court decision in People v. Emmert said rafters who touch the bank or riverbed are considered criminal trespassers, but subsequent laws changed that to a civil charge.

The civil trespassing question has never been tested in court but came close when a Gunnison County landowner along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River sued an outfitter that had been rafting a section of river for decades.

The case, however, never made it to trial because the rafting company eventually sold its assets and went out of business, which sent ripple effects throughout the rafting community, said Lori Potter, an attorney for the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

“There is no taking of property,” she said. “There is no taking … because it (predates) the property rights.”

Gunnison attorney John Hill, one of Shaw’s attorneys, disagreed, telling the panel that if the bill became law, it would create a new right at the expense of an existing one.

“(The bill) doesn’t clarify an existing right, it creates a new one for floaters,” Hill said. “It consequently takes away existing rights from landowners.”

The measure heads to the full House for more debate.


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