Supreme Court rules Homer trail should stay open

Posted: Tuesday, August 19, 2003

The Alaska Supreme Court has upheld a lower court decision giving snowmachiners and others the right to use a trail through the heart of an East End Road resident's land.

For Tom Price, owner of a state-granted agricultural interest on the 160-acre plot, it means the roar of engines cutting through the stillness of a winter landscape.

For trail users, it confirms the legal existence of easy and convenient access to the pristine Caribou Hills, long a destination for recreation, hunting and camping.

The case first arose in May 1999 when a Homer-based snowmachine club called Snomads Inc. sued Price seeking a prescriptive easement to a trail located on Price's property, alleging that they and others, including dog mushers, hunters and campers, had used the trail since the mid-1950s.

Price was aware of the trail's use as far back as 1979 or 1980, but his first attempt to prevent public use he posted "no trespassing" signs did not occur until November 1998. In January 1999, he sought the aid of the Alaska State Troopers.

Price does not actually own the roughly 160 acres outright. Rather, he owns an "agricultural interest" obtained from the state decades ago that gives him the right to use the land for farming.

The Snowmads claimed the trail had been established around 1956 and had been in use by recreationalists and others ever since. By law, it takes 10 years of use to show a prescriptive easement.

However, the Superior Court found the Snomads Inc., as an organization, lacked standing because it had only existed since 1992. Snomads member Mike Eastham, a retired Homer police officer, and 91 other individuals refiled the case naming themselves as plaintiffs instead. That satisfied the question of standing, since individually, they could claim trail use longer than 10 years.

Following a trial in 2000, Judge Harold M. Brown concluded that a right of way existed across Price's holding based on an 1866 federal land-use law commonly referred to as RS 2477. Brown did not decide whether a prescriptive easement had been created by the continued use.

Price asked for reconsideration, which Brown denied.

In so doing, Brown supplemented his earlier ruling, this time declaring that in addition to the RS 2477 right of way, Eastham and the others had also established a public prescriptive easement on Price's land. Thus, according to Brown, the trail users now had two legal criteria on which to anchor a claim to the trail.

Price appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which issued a two-pronged decision Friday.

First, the high court avoided ruling on the specifics of Brown's decision that an RS 2477 right of way existed, noting the RS 2477 question had not been raised during the Superior Court trial. Brown had reached that conclusion on his own.

The court justices tossed out that part of Brown's decision, saying Price had never been given a chance to present arguments.

"Because Price did not have notice that an RS 2477 right of way was at issue, his due process rights were violated," the court said.

However, the high court also found that a prescriptive easement did exist on Price's land. Further, the justices supported Brown's conclusion that recreational use of the trail was not inconsistent with Price's agricultural use of his land.

The high court also said Brown's ruling lacked a detailed description of the exact nature of the easement itself. That issue was remanded to the Superior Court, which will establish the boundaries and conditions under which the easement exists. That could entail, for instance, such things as defining the actual physical boundaries and whether its use might be seasonally restricted.

Efforts to reach Price on Monday were not successful.

Eastham said he had a mixed reaction to the news.

"It's good and it's bad," he said. "That trail had been there before there was an East End Road. It was an original seismic trail put in back in the 1950s. Homesteaders used it. It's a heavily used trail that is used year round.

"It's just unfortunate that it had to go this far," Eastham said. "I feel bad for Tom Price. It splits his property in two."

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