Metro. Water Dist. of Salt Lake & Sandy v. Sorf

June 11, 2019

2019 UT 23, 445 P.3d 443 (June 11, 2019)

The Utah Supreme Court held that a claim of unreasonable interference with a water district’s easement over private party was ripe for adjudication.

Metro owns and operates the Salt Lake Aqueduct (SLA), and along its corridor, owns some property in fee and has easements over other portions. Mr. Sorf owns property encumbered by a Metro district easement. The deed provides Metro an easement “to construct, reconstruct, operate and maintain a pipeline or pipelines on, over and across” the property. Metro also claims that, under Title 17B of the Utah Code, it has additional authority to regulate SLA-related property, including regulations to prohibit construction of certain structures, and prohibit property owners from having trees and vines on the land covered by the easement. Without Metro’s approval, Mr. Sorf began making improvements to his property, including installing a hot tub and gazebo.

Metro filed suit to enjoin Mr. Sort’s construction and receive a declaration about its authority to remove the improvements. Mr. Sorf argued that Metro’s claims were not ripe because whether he had violated Metro’s easement rights or its necessary regulations could not be determined until Metro had an actual need to refurbish or replace the pipeline. The district court agreed and dismissed Metro’s claim as not ripe, finding Metro’s assertion of interference with its easement rights was purely speculative until it had an actual plan requiring access to Mr. Sorf’s backyard.

The Utah Supreme Court reversed on appeal, finding the issues to be ripe. Specifically, the Court found that the aqueduct has been constructed and remains operational. The question was not whether Mr. Sorf had unreasonably interfered with the aqueduct. Rather, it was whether he had unreasonably interfered with the easement, or in other words, with Metro’s ability to access the aqueduct for maintenance and repairs. The Court remanded to the lower court to resolve the issue of whether the improvements constituted an unreasonable interference with the easement.