Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Judge decides Little Juniata public water

By Deborah Weisberg

Contributing Writer

Huntingdon, Pa. — Although the Spring Ridge Club now has one
less water to call its own, club operator Donny Beaver is claiming
“nothing has changed” on the Little Juniata River.

”It’s business as usual on the Little J at the Spring Ridge Club
… “ Beaver said in a public relations release he issued a day after
Huntingdon County Common Pleas Court Judge Stewart Kurtz ruled that
the river is navigable and therefore public property.

The decision means club members who pay tens of thousands of
dollars to fish will have to share at least a 1.3- mile section of
the Little J with those who don’t.

For years, Beaver and his club had acted as though the water
immediately downstream of Spruce Creek was for members only, even
stringing piano wire across the water to prevent the public from
wading down.

For their money, club members also get to fish dozens of smaller
leased waters from Erie to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania
that are not in dispute, as well as Conneaut Creek in Ohio.

Kurtz based his decision on the Little Juniata’s historical use
as a commercial highway from the Revolutionary War to the advent of
the railroad, as well as a legislative declaration of navigability
in 1794, which effectively prohibits Beaver from ordering
non-members off the stream.

Beaver was contacted for this story, but he refused comment.

The commonwealth’s victory paves the way for Allan Bright – a
local fishing guide and the lone individual plaintiff in the case –
to seek damages he claims he lost from Beaver’s advertising the
Little Juniata as private. Bright’s attorney Stan Stein said he
would be examining not only Beaver’s income but that of others
involved in the club to put a dollar figure on the claim.

An appeal by Beaver could delay Bright’s efforts, although
Beaver has hinted that an appeal may be unlikely, saying, “It makes
a lot more sense to invest our resources to conserve more trout
streams than to spend it on lawyers and court costs.”

Beaver has always claimed that his club’s catch-and-release rule
has benefited the Little Juniata – although it pertained to just a
1.3-mile stretch. Last year the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat
Commission changed the entire Little Juniata from
all-tackle-trophy-trout to catch- and-release-all-tackle, except
for a small delayed-harvest, artificial-lures-only section from
northeast of Bellwood to south of Fostoria.

That stretch is stocked with brown and rainbow trout in the
spring and fall. The commission plants fingerling browns on more
than 10 miles of the river annually.

The Fish & Boat Commission is one of three state agencies,
including the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
and the Pennsyl-vania Department of Conservation and Natural
Resources, which filed the suit in 2003. Bright joined their suit
and is the only plaintiff seeking monetary damages.

The five-day non-jury trial last summer came down to what
occurred on the river hundreds of years ago. Local historians
proved the Little J was a public highway, while the 1794
legislative declaration defined the streambed as belonging to the
commonwealth and adjacent private land as ending at the low water
mark, which remains in effect to this day.

”This is the first court decision that flat out says that,” said
DEP’s Dennis Whitaker, the lead attorney in the case. “It is one of
the most important outcomes of the case.”

It means anglers and boaters are allowed to the high water mark,
because there is a public easement between the low and high water
marks in Pennsylvania, Whitaker said. “The best advice is, if you
want to be safe, keep your feet wet. If you don’t venture onto
upland properties, you’ll be okay.”

Although Beaver has alleged that the state took control of land
that had been private, Stein said that couldn’t be further from the
truth. “This is not a case in which the state is taking anyone’s
private property,” he emphasized. “This is a case in which a
private landowner is trying to take property that always belonged
to the commonwealth.”

With regard to Beaver’s section, known today as Espy Farm, Stein
said the commonwealth retained title to the streambed when it
deeded the adjacent land to Joseph Heister in 1803. Connie Espy,
who leased the property to Beaver for his club, is a co-defendant
in the suit.

Land adjacent to the Little Juniata was never a part of the
case. Although escalating property postings are making it more
difficult to get to streams, landowners have the right to bar
access through their property. Anglers wanting to fish the water
near Spruce Creek and other parts of the river still are required
to wade or float down from public access points.

”The important thing about the (Little Juniata) decision is that
the public can now fish, boat and recreate on the entire length of
the Little J as long as they access the river in a lawful manner,”
said Whitaker.

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