California, among the most progressive of all states, has found a new way to “shake down” landowners for more money:
Claim ownership of all land under lake waters, then build a dam, raise the lake’s water level to cover more land, and order landowners to pay up – or else.
That’s the focal point of a fight developing now in Superior Court. A number of people who own land around Donner Lake have brought a complaint asking the judge to torpedo the state’s looming plans to fine them for not paying rent for boat docks that are on their own land, which was dry until the state raised the lake level at which point it was flooded.
Officials with Pacific Legal Foundation, a key advocate for property rights, explained the state’s move.
“For generations, private owners of lake front lots in California’s Sierra Nevada Range have maintained boating and fishing docks on their property, to enjoy the lakes and the recreational opportunities they afford. Under established law, these property owners own the land down to the low water mark of the lake, and on lakes that never supported commercial navigation, they own the lake bed to the middle of the lake.”
But the group noted, “Many of these lakes had small dams added to them, so that the high water level encroaches on the lakefront owners’ property. Thus, the docks can access the water but are still on private property instead of a state owned lake bed.”
However, the facts have not stopped the California State Lands Commission from seeing a revenue opportunity, the institute reported.
“Incorrectly” claiming that it owns the land on which the docks are located, “the commission wants annual rent from the dock owners, up to $5,000 annually.”
“This shakedown is coming to a head at Donner Lake, where the commission has strong armed the nearby town of Truckee into withholding dock maintenance permits from dock owners who do not pay annual rent to the commission,” it said.
And now the state wants “this extortion” raised a level.
It is, the report said, “enacting regulations that allow it to fine property owners for having docks on their own property, on the premise that the lake beds under the docks actually belong to the commission. This is outrageous. If the commission believes it owns property that it cannot prove title to, it has to go to court to establish that it owns the land. But these new regulations purport to allow the commission to determine its own title to the lake bed, even though the title records show that lakefront homeowners own this portion of the bed.”
The case by attorney Peter Prows of Brisco Ivester & Bazel on behalf of Donner Lake landowners notes the federal government had established the ordinary low water mark of Donner Lake at 5,924 feet. When the government added the dam, the spillway was set at 5,936.8 feet.
State law says adjacent landowners possess ownership down to the low-water mark, and if it’s not navigable, as in the case of Donner Lake, the entire lakebed.
Which raises the lawsuit’s question: How can the government charge rent for the landowners’ docks on their own land?
Among the requests of the court: an injunction preventing enforcement of any rule or regulation that is contrary “to the rights of members of the plaintiff.”