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Competing values

October 11, 2012

There are a number of ways to look at the disagreement in Lackawaxen Township, PA between Kittatinny Canoes owner David Jones, who purchased land on the banks of the Lackawaxen River to operate a boat launch business, and a variety of citizens and stakeholder organizations, including the Lackawaxen River Conservancy, that fear the consequences of a large livery business there. Lackawaxen township officials find themselves caught in the middle.

How shall we view this dispute?

On one hand, our society values a property owner’s rights to use his land as he chooses so long as it does not harm the neighbors’ rights to enjoy their property. On the other hand, we value the rights of the public, and Pennsylvania’s constitution promises the people “a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” It further establishes the Commonwealth as trustee of these resources to “conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.” At face value, the law would appear to protect both sides.

So one way to view the matter is through the eyes of the law. Indeed, Jones has stated that the law is on his side, so the matter may well end up in the courts. There, the historic use of this property matters a lot and not only going back to the 1970s when former owner Euell Threshman used it as a boat launch. Other history, going back to the days of William Penn’s land grant charter and to the founding of the Commonwealth, matters, too. In Pennsylvania, the courts consider river disputes by determining their use in the 18th and 19th centuries to see if a river was a highway for commerce and transport to carry goods to market.

Additionally, the issue looks different through the eyes of a fisherman. In Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth owns all submerged land under public bodies of water below their low-water mark, while the property owner owns everything above the high-water mark. The area in between is covered by an easement allowing anyone to fish along the banks (though a fisherman may not cross private property to get there).

There are also the neighbors, of course, who do not want to see their rural peace and quiet disrupted by an active, potentially popular business.