New law will provide Georgians with more river access

New law will provide Georgians with more river access
New law will provide Georgians with more river access(Atlanta News First)
Published: May. 15, 2023 at 6:52 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Fishing is a favorite pastime for many in Georgia. Each year, more than 1 million people apply for a fishing license, and even for those not casting a line, the Peach State’s riverways offer opportunities for recreation, education, and relaxation.

As summer approaches and river activities reach their peak, a new law will give Georgians more access to the state’s navigable waterways.

The 11th-hour Senate Bill 115, which originally had nothing to do with rivers, passed the most recent session in the final minutes. It was brought about when a South Georgia company, Four Chimneys LLLC, sued to gain the right to restrict boating and fishing in a section of the Flint River that abutted their private property. They won the lawsuit.

It got the attention – and the worry – of conservation groups, including the state’s largest member-supported organization the Georgia Wildlife Federation.

“In essence, they claimed, and they’ve got legal standing to say that they owned the river bottom out to the center of the stream,” said Mike Worley, president, and CEO of the GWF. “And we disagreed with that. We didn’t think that the angler, who had paid for the boat ramps that those fishermen are using, the fish that they’re fishing for – they belong to all of us, they don’t belong to any property owner.”

In the final days of the 2023 legislative session, Worley and lawmakers worked out a way to get language stating that all of Georgia’s navigable riverways were to remain public onto the floor and passed. They used a bill that had cleared the House for crossover day that originally had to do with the state National Guard’s life insurance structure but wound up being less than two pages discussing public waterways.

On a larger scale, Worley points to the Public Trust Doctrine – a legal principle that requires states to uphold preservation of public lands for the benefit of residents, specifically land along the coast.

“You can really make a strong argument that we really didn’t change the law, we just restated what had been the practice all along,” he said. “All of us, whether you fish or hunt or not, all of us own these resources.”

Four Chimneys disagreed. In response to Atlanta News First’s request for comment, Brooke Gram, an attorney with Four Chimney’s law firm Balch and Bingham said they’re sticking with the judge’s original ruling which stated that Four Chimneys “owns the riverbed and has the exclusive right to control fishing.”

“We consider the matter closed and have not been informed otherwise by the DNR or the Attorney General’s office. Should the DNR take a position that SB115 impacts its obligations under the Court Order, the DNR would be in contempt of the Court’s Order in the Four Chimneys’ case,” said Gram. “More broadly, SB115 did not receive the review and drafting process typical of legislation. SB115′s as-passed language has little practical effect on a property owners’ existing rights on their property. It is my opinion that the State will not prevail if it intends to treat SB115 as somehow altering established Georgia Supreme Court precedent or existing rights of property owners.”

Worley and legislators in support of the new law say fishers and anglers should have the final say, as they pay for the river’s upkeep.

“Licenses, the fishing equipment that you use, they pay an excise tax on it; the fuel that goes into their boats, they pay an excise tax on it,” said Worley. “Today we spend a lot of time talking about protecting nature, but it makes a real difference for people to see and be involved with being able to reach out and touch the nature and be able to understand it. I think that helps us in our future for conservation.”

Worley says other states are typically comprised of land that is anywhere from 60-80% public. But in Georgia, just around 7% of land is public, making access even more crucial where possible.

It should be known that while the waterway is public, anglers should be aware of private property.