Apr 6, 2023 - News

Last-minute bill protects public access to fishing

Illustration of a gavel caught on a fishing hook.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

An eleventh-hour bill at the Georgia Legislature sparked by a controversial legal settlement over a famed fishing spot will protect fishing access for the public, proponents say.

Driving the news: On March 27, the state agreed to a settlement that granted a landowner along the Flint River the right to control fishing access near their property, surprising some elected officials and environmentalists.

  • Lawmakers responded with last week's passage of Senate Bill 115, a piece of legislation asserting that the state can't convey rights like regulating fishing on navigable rivers — something that prior to the settlement, few thought was disputable.
  • The bill now sits on Gov. Brian Kemp's desk.

Why it matters: Georgia's water rules are complex, but they generally allow the public ample access to fish, float and otherwise enjoy "navigable" fresh-water streams and rivers.

  • The unexpected settlement created a roadmap for riverside property owners elsewhere in Georgia to make similar arguments, Mike Worley of the Georgia Wildlife Federation told Axios.

Catch up quick: The Flint River property is owned by Four Chimneys, a private entity managed by Augusta attorney Benjamin Brewton.

  • Brewton's family has owned the land for 50 years. In the lawsuit filed this past October in Upson County, Four Chimneys argued that their property at Yellow Jacket Shoals includes the riverbed, thus giving them the right to post no fishing signs.

State of play: It's unclear, however, why the state ultimately decided to settle the case.

  • Brooke Gram, Four Chimneys’ attorney, told Axios in a statement that the entity considers the matter resolved.

The big picture: The General Assembly's Sine Die action likely headed off years of litigation from other property owners who might have wanted to assert their rights based on the settlement, Gordon Rogers of the Flint Riverkeeper, which supported SB115, told Axios.

  • "The alternative of this was litigating it, patch of river bottom by patch of river bottom, up and down every river in Georgia. I just don't think that that was a very nice future."

What's next: First, we see whether Kemp decides to sign the bill. And later this year, a special Gold Dome committee will meet to study fresh-water fishing rights throughout Georgia.


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