Last week, the Alaska Landmine obtained a letter and 21-page legal analysis sent from the Campbell Lake Owners homeowners association (CLO) to the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regarding the legal status of Campbell Lake. The documents argue that Campbell Lake is a private lake, that members of the public may not use the lake without the permission of Campbell Lake HOA members, and that no easements exist that provide for public access to Campbell Lake. These documents directly contradict the State of Alaska and Municipality of Anchorage (MOA) position that Campbell Lake is a public lake with public access.
Last year the Alaska Landmine published a special feature followed by a series of articles regarding access to and use of Campbell Lake, which for decades has been considered a private lake for the exclusive enjoyment of lakeside residents. The Landmine reported that the State of Alaska believes Campbell Lake to be a navigable waterway under state law and that its waters are available for use by the public. Moreover, the Landmine reported that millions of dollars of public funds have been expended to maintain the “private” lake. On December 9, 2019, the State of Alaska and Municipality of Anchorage issued a joint statement affirming the public’s right to use the lake and access it overland via two easements.
Since that time, the CLO has been silent. The documents obtained by the Landmine present the first clear evidence of the CLO’s efforts to reassert exclusive private control of the lake.
The Alaska Landmine was tipped off to the CLO’s letters by Dr. John Sparaga, who confronted Team Landmine on the south easement on October 24, 2020. Sparaga told Alaska Landmine Special Features Editor Paxson Woelber that Campbell Lake is a private lake and stated that Campbell Lake Owners was working with the Alaska Attorney General to re-establish the CLO’s right to control the lake. It is not clear whether Sparaga was aware that he was speaking to a member of the Alaska Landmine.
Dr. John Sparaga confronts Alaska Landmine Special Features Editor Paxson Woelber on the south easement of Campbell Lake
When Alaska Landmine Editor-in-Chief Jeff Landfield arrived, Sparaga stated “here comes trouble” and, after restating his belief that Campbell Lake is not a public lake, quickly departed in his luxury SUV.
The Attorney General
The Landmine contacted the Department of Law to inquire about Sparaga’s claim that the AG’s office was involved in efforts to change the State’s position on Campbell Lake. Acting Attorney General Ed Sniffen responded, in part:
“I had not heard about the incident you describe at Campbell Lake, and I’m not familiar with John Sparaga’s involvement in the access issues at the lake. The joint statement you attached remains the State’s position regarding public access to Campbell Lake. It is not true that the Department of Law is working to eliminate public access to Campbell Lake.”
Campbell Lake Owners contact DNR
The Landmine began investigating whether the CLO had contacted other state agencies, and determined that the CLO had sent two documents to DNR. The first is an August 19, 2020 “Meeting Request” from CLO President Dave Weir to DNR Commissioner Corri Feigi stating the CLO’s beliefs that Campbell Lake is a private lake. The second, dated October 5, 2020, is a 21-page “Report of Investigation” authored by attorney James N. Reeves at the firm Holmes Weddle & Barcott, detailing the CLO’s legal reasoning for reasserting private control of the lake.
The documents sent to DNR are below:
The Meeting Request criticizes the State and MOA’s Joint Statement on Campbell Lake, stating that it “contradicts almost seventy-five years of history” on Campbell Lake, and laments the lack of public input involved in crafting the Joint Statement. The letter claims that the Joint Statement has created confusion, “life safety issues,” and liability for the State due to uncertainty over the management of the Campbell Lake Seaplane Base, and claims that the Joint Statement is “not supported by law but actually contrary to law.”
The Meeting Request concludes with a document titled “SOME REASONS WHY THE CAMPBELL LAKE ‘JOINT STATEMENT’ IS DEAD WRONG.” This document makes the following claims:
- The land under the lake does not belong to the State of Alaska because the land was private when it was flooded, Campbell Creek is not a navigable waterway, and there is no evidence that the wetlands flooded by the dam are State-owned tidelands.
- The public may not access or use Campbell Lake because the lake is not “waters of the State,” the lake is not suitable for public use, the lake is unnatural, and the State may not confiscate private property.
- The access easements identified by the Joint Statement do not exist because the state did not properly accept the R.S. 2477 easements at the time of statehood.
A phone call placed to CLO President Dave Weir was not returned.
The 21-page Report of Investigation authored by James N. Reeves goes into significantly more detail on the above points, arguing at length that Campbell Lake is not a navigable waterway, that the State of Alaska’s beliefs about navigable waterways are incorrect, and that the State’s legal positions regarding R.S. 2477 easements are erroneous. Reeves’ letter cites court cases around the country and numerous legal actions in Alaska up to and predating the time of statehood.
Reeves’ letter would require extensive legal research to assess in full, but preliminary review suggests that it is not merely a challenge to the application of settled State law to Campbell Lake, but a challenge to the State’s fundamental positions on land use laws ranging from the designation of navigable waterways to the establishment of R.S. 2477 easements.
If the State maintains its current position on Campbell Lake, it is likely that this dispute will be decided in either state or federal court. A decision could have sweeping implications for the future of public land access and use in the State of Alaska.
The von Imhof easement
As previously reported by the Landmine, in 2004 now-Senator Natasha von Imhof and husband Rudi von Imhof petitioned the State and MOA to vacate the section line easement claimed by the State crossing their Campbell Lake property and leading to the lake. Timothy C. Potter at DOWL Engineering authored a statement in support of the von Imhof’s vacation request, writing that the easement served no use to the public and was too steep to develop. The State partially vacated the easement and agreed to replace it with a narrower pedestrian easement along the edge of the von Imhof property, which the von Imhofs agreed not to block. The portion of the easement deemed too topographically challenging for public use by DOWL Engineering later became the von Imhofs’ driveway.
In October, a South Anchorage constituent who lives near but not on Campbell Lake contacted Senator von Imhof to request a dialogue about developing public access to Campbell Lake. Senator von Imhof did not respond, but on November 11, eight days after Senator von Imhof’s successful re-election to the Alaska State Senate, husband Rudi von Imhof sent the resident the following reply:
My name is Rudi von Imhof. I am following up on your request you recently sent to my wife, Natasha, for a meeting to discuss a trail on the pedestrian easement to access Campbell Lake. I communicated with the Campbell Lake Owners, Inc. (CLO) Board about your request and was provided a status update, below.
At this time, there has been no legal determination or ruling that Campbell Lake is public or that there are valid public easements that can be used to access it. The State of Alaska (DNR) and the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA) released a Joint Statement in fall of 2019 addressing their position relating to public access to Campbell Lake and access routes via easements. However, the Joint Statement expressly stated that it “is not, and should not be, deemed legal advice.” It also advised anyone with “specific questions concerning legal rights and obligations and legally permissible conduct” to consult with an attorney.
The CLO followed the Joint Statement’s advice to seek a legal determination on this matter. Based on the attorney’s findings, the CLO has taken the following position relating to public access to Campbell Lake:
The public access easements referenced in the Joint Statement are not valid. The Territory of Alaska never accepted the RS2477 easement on the section line prior to the land being acquired by homestead entry. Effectively, all public access easements were extinguished when the land was acquired directly from the federal government by private individuals under the Homestead Act, which occurred before statehood.
Campbell Lake is not a public lake for multiple reasons. The lake bed is owned with clear title by CLO and members of the general public do not have the right to be present on the Lake without the consent of a property owner.
The CLO is currently pursuing meetings with DNR and the Municipality to discuss and review its legal position.
Given the above information, the CLO prefers that we do not to have a meeting about a ski trail at this time. We realize this may be a disappointment to you, but the CLO and its members cannot consider a proposal that is contrary to the legal advice it has recently received, until the matter is resolved. We hope you understand.
–Rudi von Imhof
Rudi followed up with a second email clarifying that the section line easements leading to Campbell Lake were not “extinguished” per se but did not exist in the first place. It reads, in part:
I wanted to let you know that I did follow up with a question to the Campbell Lake Owners Inc. (CLO) regarding your comment about the inaccuracy of their statement(s). The legal advisor to the CLO suggested that I clarify my earlier message to you. He pointed out that my comment about a federal easement being “extinguished” is not correct. He stated that the easement never existed. (Apparently, it did not exist because the Territorial Act thought by some people to have accepted the easement was not legally effective to accept it. This is the conclusion reached by the U.S. Department of the Interior in a published legal opinion and by a prominent federal court decision.) What was “extinguished” was the opportunity of the Territory or the State to acquire the R.S. 2477 section-line easement by a legally-effective act of acceptance.
The Alaska Landmine contacted Senator von Imhof on November 12, 2020 to request the Senator’s position on access to and use of Campbell Lake. Senator von Imhof responded with a statement from the CLO, including language identical to that previously forwarded to her constituent by Rudi. When asked whether she held an independent position on access to and use of the lake in her capacity as a representative of District L, the Landmine was informed that the Senator was out of town with her family and then told that the Senator “does not have an additional statement.”
At this time, the State and MOA have repeatedly affirmed their support for the 2019 Joint Statement, which describes Campbell Lake as a public lake open to public use and enjoyment. Since the release of the Joint Statement numerous members of the public have used the lake for snowmachining, skiing, skating, walking, and boating. APD has not taken any action against members of the public for accessing or using the lake.
However, since the publication of the Joint Statement the State and MOA have made no apparent efforts to develop or defend public access to Campbell Lake. A wire fence hampering public access was erected along the north easement identified by the Joint Statement, and a pile of brush was placed in the south easement traversing the von Imhof property. Members of the public attempting to use the easements have been intermittently harassed by Campbell Lake residents. The Alaska Landmine is frequently contacted by frustrated and confused members of the public who wish to access Campbell Lake.
Recent developments demonstrate that the Campbell Lake Owners intend to rally significant resources to re-assert their exclusive right to control access to and use of Campbell Lake. Several Anchorage attorneys told the Landmine that the CLO likely spent tens of thousands of dollars producing the documents already sent to DNR, and the well-heeled residents living on the shores of Campbell Lake likely have vastly more resources to expend. The results of a legal confrontation between the State, MOA, and CLO could ripple far beyond the shores of the lake itself and fundamentally alter the future of public land use in the State of Alaska.
This is a developing story.
Campbell Lake series
This article is part of the Alaska Landmine's coverage of Campbell Lake access
Special FeatureThe bizarre story of Campbell Lake, the private lake that isn't
ArticleMillions of public dollars spent to dam and maintain “private” Campbell Lake
ArticleNew documents reveal coordinated effort to eliminate Campbell Lake public access
ArticleState of Alaska, Municipality of Anchorage issue joint statement: Campbell Lake is a public lake
ArticleCampbell Lake public access easements have been surveyed and marked!
ArticleCampbell Lake HOA submits letters to State alleging Campbell Lake is a private lake
ArticleProblems with Campbell Lake public access escalate
ArticleHouse Finance Committee approves marked access on Campbell Lake Easements
ArticleAnchorage Assembly funds Campbell Lake signage; lakeside residents sue to invalidate easements