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We Build Alaska

Judge orders temporary removal of Benka Lake fence, reestablishing public access

On May 31, a state judge ordered Jan and Britta Brunz to temporarily remove a fence blocking public access to Benka Lake, in Talkeetna. The fence, built by the Brunzes in 2022 in an attempt to close a longstanding public access point to the lake, has been a topic of bitter controversy in the community since it was erected in 2022, and was the subject of a lawsuit filed in 2023.

Last week’s injunction ordering the removal of the fence marks a significant victory for Friends of Benka Lake and the State of Alaska, who are jointly suing to restore the public access point, though the legal status of the fence ultimately will not be decided until the conclusion of the trial.

Benka Lake lies below a cluster of wooded hills a short distance off of Talkeetna Spur Road, near its intersection with the Parks Highway. In 1965, the State of Alaska built a road to Benka Lake and a boat launch, with the stated intention of providing public access to the lake. Though a requirement was placed in property deeds to maintain and plat a public easement to the lake, land around the boat launch changed hands several times and the easement was never platted. In 2015 and 2021, the Brunzes purchased the parcels on either side of the boat launch. In 2022, they erected a fence at the end of South Lakeview Street, blocking public access to the boat launch and lake.

In 2023, the Brunzes filed paperwork with the Mat-Su Borough requesting that the borough vacate its ownership of the end of South Lakeview Street leading to the boat launch, effectively turning the public road leading to the boat launch over to private ownership by the Brunzes. The Brunz parcels would then be combined into a single parcel, along with the boat launch and formerly-public road.

The fence and attempt to privatize a portion of S Lakeview St stirred confusion and outrage among many users of Benka Lake, many of whom had been recreating on the lake for decades. In 2023, the newly-formed group Friends of Benka Lake filed a lawsuit against the Brunzes. Friends of Benka Lake was soon joined by the State of Alaska, which has long vigorously defended public access to Alaska waterways. In early 2024, the State of Alaska, supported by Friends of Benka Lake, requested that the court grant an injunction requiring that the Brunzes remove the fence and restore public access to the lake.

In the hearing for the injunction, the judge overseeing the case heard testimony from residents who were no longer able to use the lake, both for recreation and to access their own private parcels. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game testified that they could no longer stock the lake, and the Talkeetna Fire Chief testified that the fire department could no longer use the lake as a water source.

In the order granting the injunction, the judge found that the fence had caused significant harm and that the suit against the Brunzes had obvious merit. The order gave the Brunzes 72 hours to remove the fence. According to posts on the Friends of Benka Lake Facebook page, the Brunzes removed the fence and individuals immediately began recreating on the lake. However, the injunction to remove the fence will only remain in effect until the trial is concluded, leaving the fate of lake access uncertain.

Talkeetna resident and Friends of Benka Lake board member Chris Hall told the Landmine that Jan Brunz had been visiting the lake for decades, and knew about the public access point long before purchasing the adjacent lots in 2015 and 2021. Hall stated that the Brunzes’ attorney, Phillip Weidner, had filed excessively long and tedious documents with the court in an attempt to delay the trial. But, he said, Friends of Benka Lake remained undeterred.

“This is a fight we’re gonna continue having as people with wealth move in and try to take away public access,” he said, citing increasing population and pressure on the Talkeetna area. Hall told the Landmine that many of his neighbors voluntarily create and maintain community trails, and that this communal spirit is one of the benefits of living in Talkeetna.

Hall provided the following statement to the Landmine:

“Our community has had public access to Benka Lake blocked for two years. For the same period, Alaska Fish and Game has not stocked the lake, which impacts not only the people who enjoy fishing but also migratory birds that rely on the fish. Many community members have expressed excitement about having access returned by this injunction. Today, a community member planned a paddle board event with neighbors to celebrate. Friends of Benka Lake are also working with Fish and Game to stock the lake this summer. Shared access to our common resources is an Alaska constitutional right. Friends of Benka Lake will continue working towards full legal public access to Benka Lake and look forward to the court protecting that right for future generations of Alaskans.”

Jan Brunz did not answer two phone calls, and did not respond to an emailed request for comment by the time of publication.

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Sourdough Joe
8 days ago

Good article, what is happening with Campbell Lake these days?

Scott
8 days ago

Blocked for two years?

Think I’ll put a fence up in front of the boat launch in Whittier. I’ll loose in court, but it going to be awesome having the whole Western side of PWS to myself while the lawyers dink around running up bills.

andy
8 days ago

I grew up visiting Benka Lake every summer at a friend’s cabin. I always thought the “Loons” made their nest on the islands though…

Ed Martin Jr
8 days ago

In all fairness why don’t you show the whole lake & the other rd & launch built by the state, also what was the ruling by the Matsu Borough on the vacation ? If they granted it, then the Friends need to use the state access!

Alaskan rights
8 days ago
Reply to  Ed Martin Jr

Mutually exclusive.

Access rights are just that. Whether there is one or five points for that access.

Protect ALL rights to access public lands.

People like this are kooks.

Dan
7 days ago
Reply to  Ed Martin Jr

First – The Mat-Su Borough did not vacate the public access easement. They determined that it wasn’t their easement to vacate – rather that would require a State action. The MatSu Borough did decide that the easement was invalid – but that decision is likely to be over-ruled in state court. Second – Our family has a cabin on Benka Lake, and I am unaware of another access road and launch developed by the state. There are a few easements without constructed access. If you know about something, spill the tea. Lastly – I am not surprised to see the… Read more »

Jomama
4 days ago

Thank you for continuing to report on Access issues in Alaska, especially these cases where private entities (often with deep pockets) try to buy up and close-off long established access routes under dubious pretenses… These often fly under the radar. This one definitely seems like another solid case of prescriptive rights, and hopefully the court will rule to establish that, setting even more precedence for public access easements.