In six years at the state Legislature, Rep. Kathleen Curry said she has never been involved in a more controversial bill than her “right to float” bill, which the state Senate last week punted to a study committee.
The bill, House Bill 1188, explicitly states that commercial rafting companies would not be committing trespass if they incidentally touch riverbanks on private property. A provision of the bill, which Curry said garnered the most opposition and was stripped out, allowed commercial floaters to enter private land to portage around hazards obstructing the river.
The bill passed the House by a 40-25 vote in February. But last Friday, an amendment was inserted into the bill remanding it for study by the Colorado Water Congress, which deals with water rights. The new version of the bill passed on Monday with a vote of 21-14.
The bill goes back to the House now, and Curry must decide what her next step is. She could go to a conference committee and attempt to convince some of her fellow legislators to move away from the study provision. She was not optimistic that she would end up with the support she needs to pass the bill without the study provision, however.
Curry, whose district stretches from Garfield County to Gunnison and includes Aspen, said the study amendment gave cover to wavering senators, who were able to vote “yes” on a toothless bill.
The amendment “turned the bill into a study, which is a waste of time,” Curry said, noting that studies of the issue have occurred before.
Opponents to the bill included the Colorado Association of Realtors, as well as farm and ranching associations. Organizations lobbied heavily against the bill.
“Anything involving property rights is going to raise people’s emotional concerns,” Curry said.
Kelly Sloan, with the Mesa County chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization, explained some of his misgivings about the bill. He noted however, that his group did not take an official position.
Conservatives fought the bill because they saw it as “essentially government telling someone when they can and can’t trespass,” he said.
If a business goes through private property and the owner doesn’t want you there, “that’s his prerogative,” Sloan said.
“There are other ways to arbitrate this without government coming in and telling a private owner” who can and cannot come on their property, Sloan said.
Rachel Nance, a legislative coordinator with the Colorado Association of Realtors, said her group was also concerned about infringing on private property rights. They felt that the proposal went too far, and that the status quo, which allows boaters to float down the middle of a river, but requires them to obtain permission to step on the banks on private land, is good enough, she said.
Bob Hamel, head of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, said the status quo is most definitely not good enough.
The current dispute caught fire when a private landowner who is building an exclusive residential development centered on fishing on the Taylor River near Crested Butte threatened to take action against commercial boaters floating past his property. The property in question included a bridge that floaters sometimes have to portage around depending on water conditions.
Opponents to the bill like to state these incidents rarely occur, and that they can be worked out between the landowner and the rafting company without dragging the whole state into the mess, Hamel said.
But the issue is not confined to the Taylor River, Hamel said, noting a similar threat going into this summer on the Yampa River made by a landowner to a commercial float fishing company, and a long line of similar incidents for the past 30 years.
“The problem is it keeps resurfacing,” Hamel said.
Curry agrees. The state’s rafting industry “is wondering who is going to be next,” she said.
With Curry and the rafting industry opposed to the study provision, forces are gathering for a November ballot question on a right to float law. Should that happen, the ballot language would likely be less friendly to landowners than the compromise bill Curry had carried. For example, a ballot question would likely include private boaters, which Curry’s bill excluded, and would likely include the portage provision. The deadline to file language initiating a ballot question is Friday.
“If you think it’s big fanfare now ... just wait until we go on TV,” Hamel said.