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Case Summary Citation

2014 MT 10, 373 Mont. 277

Abstract

On January 16, 2014, the Supreme Court of Montana reversed and remanded a district court decision that had foreclosed the public’s right to access the Ruby River. The Court held that the right of way was a public prescriptive easement, which extended beyond the road surface itself to include such area as necessary for the county to maintain the road in the interest of the public. Furthermore, the Court concluded that once a public right-of-way is established by prescriptive use, the scope of current and future use of such an easement is not limited to those historic adversarial practices which gave rise to the easement, but rather is subject to uses that are incidental to original uses or “reasonably foreseeable.” Finally, the Court found the adjacent landowner’s takings claim to be without merit because any compensable interest had been expressly severed by his predecessor in title and the enactment of the state’s Stream Access Law, which encumbered his deed with an inalienable public servitude. This decision clarifies potential ambiguities surrounding the public’s right to use roads and bridges for recreational access to Montana’s public lands. Ultimately, the Court protected Montana’s legacy of public access to its world famous rivers, consistent with its decisions on the issue over the past several decades.

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