BILLINGS (AP) – A state judge has created a public access point to the Ruby River after a 12-year fight by an out-of-state landowner to block people from getting to the waterway where it flows through his property.

District Judge Loren Tucker ruled last week that the easement extends 5 feet on either side of the Seyler Lane bridge south of Twin Bridges, The Billings Gazette reported.

James Cox Kennedy, chairman of Cox Enterprises, an Atlanta-based media company, began buying property along the river in the 1990s and closing off public access. The Public Land/Water Access Association sued Madison County in 2004 to get it to force Kennedy to provide public access and remove fences.

State law says people can use streams up to the high water mark. The Montana Legislature confirmed in 2009 that the public has access to surface waters by public bridge or county road right-of-way.

Usually county roads have a 60-foot public easement that allows for road maintenance. But Judge Tucker ruled in 2012 that the Seyler Lane bridge had no such access point.

The state Supreme Court returned the case to Tucker in 2014, saying he must establish a definite width of the public right-of-way so Madison County could maintain the bridge. The county had said it didn’t require the access.

Tucker determined the county had historically used about 5 feet upstream and downstream from the bridge for maintenance, setting that as the easement.

John Gibson, president of the Public Land/Water Access Association, called the ruling a win for public access.

“If we hadn’t fought this, I’m afraid we’d be looking at `No Trespassing’ signs and electric fences across the state,” Gibson said. “Somebody had to stop these people.”

The case was the third the association won over access to the Ruby River from bridges in Madison County. The two other bridges are at Duncan and Lewis lanes, south of Seyler Lane, and also are surrounded by Kennedy’s property.

Kennedy invested millions of dollars in improving the river’s fishery and habitat, said Reed Watson with Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center.

Watson said it was not clear if the decision grants public access along Seyler Lane, but if it does, it creates a disincentive for future conservation efforts by other private landowners.

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