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Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake & Sandy v. Sorf

Supreme Court of Utah

June 11, 2019

Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake & Sandy, Appellant,
Zdenek Sorf, Appellee.

          On Direct Appeal Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Robert P. Faust No. 100921025

          Shawn E. Draney, Scott H. Martin, Danica N. Cepernich, Rodney R. Parker, Salt Lake City, for appellant

          Paul M. Belnap, Bradley W. Bowen, Alan R. Houston, Salt Lake City, for appellee

          Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce and Justice Petersen joined.




         ¶1 Article XI, section 8 of the Utah Constitution and Utah Code section 17B-1-103 authorize the creation of quasi-governmental entities known as limited purpose local districts. The Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy (Metro) is one such district, created for the purpose of operating the Salt Lake Aqueduct (SLA). Metro owns land in fee and has various easements along the SLA corridor. One of these easements crosses the backyard of Zdenek Sorf. Metro claims that it has authority to enact regulations over non-Metro district use of SLA corridor lands such as Mr. Sorf's. When Mr. Sorf made improvements to his property in violation of these regulations, Metro sued for injunctive relief, among other claims. Mr. Sorf filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing Metro's claims were not yet ripe. The district court granted his motion. Because we find that the parties' claims are ripe, we reverse and remand.


         ¶2 Metro owns and operates the SLA. The SLA transports water from the Deer Creek Dam to the Salt Lake Valley. Along the SLA corridor, Metro owns some property in fee and has easements over other portions. Mr. Sorf owns property encumbered by a Metro district easement. This easement was created by deed in 1946 by Elizabeth Colemere, the former property owner. This deed provides Metro an easement 125 feet wide "to construct, reconstruct, operate and maintain a pipeline or pipelines on, over and across" the property.

         ¶3 Metro also claims that, under Utah Code sections 17B-1-103 and 17B-1-301, it has additional authority to adopt regulations of SLA-related property. With this alleged authority, Metro has created a set of regulations, including provisions controlling non-Metro use of the SLA. These regulations prohibit construction of certain structures, and prohibit property owners from having trees and vines on the land covered by the easement.[1] Metro's regulations require property owners encumbered by Metro's easement to submit an encroachment application to Metro if they want to make any of these restricted improvements on their land.

         ¶4 Without Metro's approval, Mr. Sorf began making improvements to his property.[2] He removed some trees and landscaping and replaced them with a hot tub and gazebo. He added garden boxes, a water feature, and a shed. All of these improvements fall within the boundaries of Metro's easement. Mr. Sorf also replaced a cinder block wall with a wood fence and installed a gate in the fence to give Metro access. He installed another gate between his backyard and his neighbor's backyard to provide additional access.

         ¶5 Metro filed suit in October 2010, seeking to enjoin Mr. Sorf's construction and receive a declaration about its authority to remove the improvements. Mr. Sorf defaulted, appealed to this court, and we vacated the denial of his motion to set aside the default judgment.[3]Mr. Sorf later filed an answer and counterclaim in the district court. Metro filed a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking a declaration that it had the regulatory authority it claimed. Mr. Sorf filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, claiming that Metro's claims were not ripe "because whether [Mr. Sorf] has violated [Metro's] easement rights or [Metro's] necessary rules and regulations cannot be determined until such time as [Metro] has an actual need to refurbish or replace the pipeline."

         ¶6 The district court granted Mr. Sorf's cross-motion. It found that Metro had an easement on Mr. Sorf's property, that there was no evidence that Mr. Sorf's improvements to the property unreasonably interfered with the aqueduct, and that Metro's "assertion of interference with its rights regarding the potential future refurbishment or replacement of the pipe [was] purely speculative." The district court dismissed Metro's claims as not ripe. Specifically, the district court found that "determining whether [Mr. Sorf] has unreasonably interfered with the easement will be entirely speculative until Metro has an actual plan to refurbish or replace the pipe under [Mr. Sorf's] backyard."

         ¶7 Metro appealed the district court's order. We have jurisdiction pursuant ...

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