Bear Lake legal battle: Garden City pushes eminent domain after losing in court

Garden City Mayor John Spuhler speaks with Utah legislators about Bear Lake beach access July 2015.

GARDEN CITY – A legal battle that began near Bear Lake’s west shore in May 2013 is about to take another turn.

Six lanes not only connect property owners with the 29 homes and cabins at Shore Lodge Estates, but they could potentially connect the public with one of Bear Lake’s beaches. Depending on who you talk to, those lanes are believed to be either public roads or private driveways.

After a legal conflict between property owners and Garden City went to the First District Court, Judge Thomas Willmore’s May 25, 2016 ruling declared the driveways private, but Garden City Mayor Spuhler believes they have always been public, and he isn’t giving up. He said the city is planning on acquiring two of the six roads by using eminent domain – the process of a government appropriating private property for public use.

He said eminent domain is a less expensive and quicker alternative then continuing a legal battle. Spuhler plans on presenting his reasons for using eminent domain and explaining why he thinks the judge’s decision was wrong during a town meeting Jan. 12 at 5 p.m.

“Instead of going through this process of fighting this for years and years, we’ll just say, ‘OK, this is what (the judge) decided,’” he said. “We’ll accept the decision, but we’re going to go ahead and do what we think is right, and that is open up the public accesses to people that aren’t on the beach.”

Phillip Olsen, who has owned property at Shore Lodge Estates since 1971, called the situation unfortunate and Spuhler a “sore loser.”

“We went through three years in court and we won,” he said. “They had a chance to present their case and it was totally rejected. The judge sided with the property owners that the driveways are private.”

According to a Shore Lodge Estate’s Home Owner’s Association (HOA) memo, the conflict started in May 2013 when Spuhler announced he wanted to create walking lanes along the driveways to access the lake. Four months later Spuhler sent a letter to the residents requiring gates be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to allow public access to the beach.

That began discussion among residents of Shore Lodge Estates to form the aforementioned HOA. In March 2014, the HOA was officially in place and attorney Paxton Guymon was hired to represent it. Guymon soon sent a letter to Garden City stating the residents of Shore Lodge Estates wouldn’t comply with Spuhler’s request.

A letter dated April 23, 2013 sent by Spuhler informed the residents the gates must be removed by May 1, though residents claim they never saw the letter until the deadline. Signs were posted on May 4 declaring the driveways public roads. City employees removed the gates the next day.

“There was no warning to that,” Olsen said. “It was a brazen, rude thing to do, without using due process of law. The city was way overstepping their bounds.”

Spuhler said he understands why residents near the beach are upset, but added that he believes most in Garden City favor what is being done to provide more access and that most agree the roads are public.

“They try to paint this picture that we are bullies, but the opposite is true,” he said. “I think they’re the bullies, so we’re pretty steadfast in our decision to open up these accesses. We’ve had a ton of support.”

Spuhler argued that the original documents listed the driveways as public and that they were never intended to be private. He said he doesn’t understand why the judge made the decision he did.

According to the judge’s memorandum, the plat stated the developers “do hereby dedicate for the perpetual use of the public all parcels of land shown on this plat as intended for public use”, but then failed to indicate any land as public.

The memorandum continued to state that in order to keep a street private, the developer must list them as private or do as the Shore Lodge Estate developer did: state that all land indicated for public use is listed “then fail to indicate such land.”

But Spuhler believes the judge made an error, saying the lanes were recorded as public. He pointed to other nearby developments, such as Azure Cove, as examples of how lanes intended to be private were actually recorded.

“They’ll say ‘Everyone recorded them that way,’” he said. “No they didn’t. Your next door neighbor didn’t record them that way about the same time.”

Spuhler said other things, such as the fact that property taxes were never paid on the lanes, further prove the point the lanes were always public.

He said there were originally seven public roads, but the developer of Shore Lodge Estates approached the city in 1969 asking the city to vacate one of them, allowing the developer to claim ownership of it. Spuhler said if the developer of Shore Lodge Estates asked the city for the property to be vacated, he must have known they were public from the start.

“We have the documents, and the city granted him a vacation of the road,” Spuhler said. “In his request he said ‘This is a road, and I would like the city to consider vacating this,’ which the city did.”

Spuhler said other property owners have since come forward asking for the roads to be vacated.

“All the way up until 2005 there were several other requests, from their group, to say we would like to have these roads vacated or given back,” Spuhler said. “From their own group. I have all the documents.

“They knew they were public.”

Olsen said that if the roads were public they would have been maintained by the city. The judge’s memorandum backed up that statement.

“If a city owns public streets for 50 years, upon which many of its families reside, it will typically pave or improve the streets in some way, plow the snow from them, or name them,” the memorandum stated.

Spuhler said the only reason he is using eminent domain is to provide access to the public beach for everyone. He said he believes that as Garden City continues to grow, providing access to the lake is the right thing to do.

Olsen said Spuhler is overstepping his bounds.

“He’s wasting tax dollars,” he said. “They have spent more than $100,000 already in legal fees associated with the last court case. If I lived in Garden City and was a voter I would be furious that he was wasting all this money on projects that don’t benefit a lot of people.”

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