Court decision apparently opens private lakes to public use
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A divided Iowa Supreme Court concluded Friday that a central Iowa recreational lake that owners tout as the state’s largest private lake isn’t private at all because it is accessible via a public waterway.
The ruling could have ramifications for private lake developments connected to rivers that want to keep out nonmember boaters. It’s not immediately clear how many lakes in Iowa could be affected.
The 4-2 decision came in the case of Jeffrey Alan Meyers who was arrested by Iowa Department of Natural Resources officers for boating while intoxicated on Lake Panorama in July 2018. The DNR officers initially stopped Meyers’ pontoon boat on the lake because it was decorated with blue lights, violating an Iowa law against displaying blue lights on a boat that’s not an emergency vessel.
DNR officers claimed they had jurisdiction because the lake is connected to the Middle Raccoon River, a publicly accessible river from which a boat could enter Lake Panorama.
Meyers, who owns a home at the lake, claimed in court documents that the DNR officers conducted an unconstitutional stop of his boat and he tried to suppress evidence from the stop. He based his claim on the assertion that Lake Panorama is a private lake and the DNR officers had no jurisdiction to enforce the state’s ban on blue lights on a boat.
A judge concluded the lake under Iowa’s legal definition is a “navigable water” because it is possible for the public to put in a boat at Springbrook State Park north of the lake and navigate down the Middle Raccoon River onto the lake.
Four members of the court agreed with the judge and upheld Meyers’ conviction.
Meyers’ attorney said it’s a significant ruling for private lake owners.
“I think the Iowa Supreme Court ruling has opened up that waterway and so long as you can access the lake from an inbound stream or inbound river, there’s no such thing as a private lake in Iowa,” Robert Rehkemper said.
A group of private property owners, with the permission of the state, dammed the Middle Raccoon River near Panora — about 50 miles northwest of Des Moines — in 1970, creating Lake Panorama. It’s more than 1,100 acres of lake surface and 30 miles of shoreline. It has about 1,000 homes.
John Rutledge, general manager of the Lake Panorama Association, said an occasional boater in a kayak or canoe comes down the river and onto the lake and the association has decided to leave them alone. He said use by boaters who aren’t members hasn’t been a big problem and he doesn’t anticipate that changing. The privately owned shoreline around the lake makes it by design mostly for use by those who own property there.
“Life on Lake Panorama in 2020 is not going to be different because of this. We have a good relationship with our local DNR officers and we’re going to continue to and I just don’t see this changing anything,” he said.
Justices David Wiggins and Brent Appel disagreed with the more conservative court justices. Wiggins concluded in a dissenting opinion that under Iowa common law “waters covering a privately owned lakebed are not, by default, open to the use of the general public merely because the general public is logistically able to float into those waters from connecting waters.”
He concluded that Lake Panorama is private and the DNR officers had no jurisdiction to enforce the blue light law on Meyers’ boat.