Montana Wins Appeal on Control of River Islands

     (CN) – Three islands that sprang out of the Missouri River in the last hundred years belong to Montana for the financial benefit of public schools, the state Supreme Court ruled.
     Some residents had objected after Montana sought quiet title to the 487 acres of property in 2006. A judge in Richland County found, however, found that Montana holds the title and that private entities could not acquire title by adverse possession.
     Montana still appealed, however, because the court also ruled that the riverbeds were not school trust lands, and that the state must reimburse the residents for property taxes they paid and improvements they made over the years.
     Last week, the Montana Supreme Court found for the state on each issue.
     The lower court’s improper decision stemmed from misapplication of precedent, according to the 13-page decision.
     Before U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision earlier this year, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in PPL Montana v. State that similar riverbed land was not school trust land because the state land board had not classified the land that way.
     The ruling was overturned for other reasons.
     Also in the 1992 decision Montana Department of State Lands v. Armstrong, the state high court said that islands arising after statehood by vertical accretion within a navigable riverbed belong to the state.
     But “neither Armstrong nor PPL Montana involved the specific issue before us in this case,” Justice Beth Baker wrote for the unanimous five-member panel.
     “Neither case had occasion to address the statute that is controlling under the facts presented here,” she added. “Section 77-1-102, [Montana Code Annotated], provides in pertinent part: (1) The following lands belong to the state of Montana to be held in trust for the benefit of the public schools of the state: … (b) all islands existing in the navigable streams or lakes in this state that have not been surveyed by the government of the United States.”
     This statute “expressly classifies” the ownership of accreted islands such as those in this case, according to the decision.
     Under the equal-footing doctrine, once lands pass to the state, “they are governed by state law,” Baker added.
     It was also improper for the lower court to order tax and improvement reimbursement since the residents never requested such relief, and that Montana never had the chance to oppose it.
     If the residents choose, they can file for a tax refund with Richland County commissioners, according to the decision.
     In the meantime, Montana can recover for the cost of surveying the land boundaries as the prevailing party.

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