Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 3:39 PM on Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Alaska Supreme Court again rules on East End snowmachine access

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

In its third opinion on the Thomas Price Jr. v. Mike Eastham et al. case regarding snowmachine access to an East End Road man's property, the Alaska Supreme Court last Thursday delivered a mixed decision. In an opinion written by Justice Morgan Christen, the court:

• Reversed a Kenai Superior Court ruling by Judge Carl Bauman that non-snowmachine users have established the right to a prescriptive easement across Thomas Price's property;

• Affirmed the Superior Court's ruling that snowmachine users could groom, mark and clear a trail through Price's property and that an increase in trail use did not overburden the easement;

• Reversed the Superior Court's finding on the easement's width and remanded that the lower court determine an appropriate speed limit and seasonal limitation for the snowmachine easement.

In the suit first filed in 1999 by Eastham and 90 other members of the Snomads Club, the snowmachiners argued an old seismic trail across Price's property had been used since at least 1956 to get to nearby houses and Caribou Lake. After increased snowmachine use on his land in 1998-99, Price began putting up no trespassing signs.

Eastham et al. sued for a prescriptive easement and Superior Court Judge Harold Brown granted it. On appeal, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld that decision, but remanded the Superior Court define the scope of that easement. Judge Brown, now retired, then defined the easement as 16-feet wide.

In a second appeal by Price, the Supreme Court ruled the Superior Court did not provide sufficient findings for its decision and remanded the case. The Superior Court then held an evidentiary hearing and expanded the easement width to 18 feet, sufficient to allow two snowmachines going in opposite directions to pass safely. The Superior Court also declined to restrict trail use to winter, saying it would restrict non-snowmachine users.

Representing himself, Price appealed that decision a third time.

In its latest decision, the Supreme Court agreed with Price that its original decision granting a prescriptive easement applied only to snowmachiners. The court said its decision wasn't intended to suggest other users cannot establish prescriptive rights to use the trail.

"But other types of users cannot skip the requirement of proving that their use satisfied the elements required for establishing an easement by prescription," Judge Christen wrote.

On that basis, not establishing seasonal use requires remand, the Supreme Court ruled. It noted Price had presented evidence of deep ruts and erosion in the trail caused by use outside winter and when the ground was not frozen. The Supreme Court also ruled the lower court had not presented sufficient findings to justify the wider, 18-foot easement.

The Supreme Court did not find evidence supporting an easement wider than 8 feet, or the width of one lane of snowmachine traffic. Because high-speed travel does not fall within the prescriptive easement, the Supreme Court said Price could set speed limits and remanded that the Superior Court establish a speed limit.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.