Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Bill to protect public land, water access clears Senate panel

by LOGAN FINNEY / Idaho Reports
| February 8, 2024 1:00 AM

State lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday that seeks to protect public access to Idaho’s lands and waters if a local government decides to vacate a roadway.

If a public right-of-way provides access to state lands or waters, Senate Bill 1258 would require counties and highway districts to obtain equivalent replacement access for the public before deciding to vacate it.

“Before abandonment, we are asking our local governments to provide a replacement,” bill sponsor Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, explained to the Senate Transportation Committee.

Herndon said a local dispute in Bonner County over the end of Camp Bay Road on Lake Pend Oreille has reached its conclusion and would not be impacted by the bill, but was the inspiration behind it.

“It wasn’t what this bill calls for, which is the same scope of use and substantially similar, but that situation is basically adjudicated,” Herndon said. “This is really looking out for future situations for all of Idaho.”

Jennifer Arn, a Bonner County resident who fought the Camp Bay Road vacation in court, gave remote testimony in support of the legislation.

“Public access to public lands and waters affects not only the locals of a given county or highway district where that decision is made by local commissioners, but it affects all Idahoans, especially since recreation and tourism are major industries for us,” Arn said. “Had SB 1258 been in place in this circumstance, it would have saved us all a great amount of time, energy, and especially money. The developer could have planned the project knowing the clear parameters from the beginning. The county commissioners would have had stronger guidelines in making their decision.”

Bonner County commissioners approved that road vacation on the condition that the developer would replace public access provided by the road with a new path built on the property.

“They used to have a drivable road, now they have a walking path,” Herndon pointed out. “This legislation [in future cases] would require a substantially similar access with the same scope of use.”

The bill specifically would not allow the use of eminent domain to obtain that replacement access.

“The easiest course for local government, rather than possibly doing harder work and going and finding a voluntary acquisition, would be to use the power of eminent domain,” Herndon said. “What I’d rather the county do is carefully reconsider a road vacation if they’re having a hard time getting a voluntary replacement.”

Lawmakers on the committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the full Senate for consideration.

“I still think there are going to be times when you may want to use eminent domain to solve a problem, but that’s something a future legislature could consider,” said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise.

Sen. Ali Rabe, D-Boise, supported advancing the bill but said she would like to hear more information from the counties about the issue before supporting it on the Senate floor.

Idaho Association of Counties executive director Seth Grigg told Idaho Reports that his organization’s legislative committee is meeting today to review the bills in progress this session.

Logan Finney joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and covers a wide variety of subjects, including politics.