Georgia House approves bill to allow property owners to restrict access to state’s smaller waterways

Paddling groups have raised concerns that a new proposal could greatly curtail Georgians’ ability to paddle and explore some of the state’s premiere paddling destinations like South Chickamauga Creek in North Georgia. (Courtesy of Georgia River Network)

The House has signed off on a controversial measure that opponents say will limit the public’s ability to float and paddle on Georgia’s smaller waterways.

The proposal, sponsored by Waycross Republican Rep. James Burchett, is being billed as an attempt to clarify a last-minute measure passed last session after landowners along the Flint River successfully asserted in court that they can control who is allowed to fish near their property.

Burchett, who is the majority whip in the House, says his bill is needed to address the concerns that arose from landowners and representatives of the state’s agriculture industry, who have said last year’s attempt to protect public fishing access could make operations with water withdrawal permits vulnerable to lawsuits.

The south Georgia lawmaker argues his bill only affects navigable waterways and does not change where people are allowed to access by boat, but that is not how paddling enthusiasts see it. Opponents of the bill have urged lawmakers to take a lighter touch. 

“There’s going to be some pain in doing this,” Burchett said Monday. “But I’m telling you, we have rewritten this language 15 times no less trying to appease everyone here. But ultimately, this is what you’re doing: You’re balancing private property rights with the right to fish and pass. That’s all we’re doing here.”

There is a similar bill that was advanced out of a Senate committee last week.

The House proposal came out of a study committee that spent last year examining the complex issue, which involves centuries of case law and property records and hinges on a Civil War-era definition of navigability.

Tensions on Georgia’s rivers have been rising, though, as some riverside landowners tried to limit fishing access on some of the most popular fishing spots in the state. Some encounters have turned violent.

Burchett also filed a separate measure last week that spells out which waterways are navigable – and therefore open to the public – and which ones are non-navigable and require permission from property owners.

Under the companion bill, five of the state’s 38 water trails are at risk of being deemed off limits without permission, according to the Georgia River Network. Examples include the Chickamauga Creek in Ringgold and Upper Chattahoochee River.

Burchett’s main proposal cleared the chamber with a 107-to-60 vote Monday that did not fall neatly along party lines. The bill barely made it out of committee earlier this month, with the chair of the committee casting a tie-breaking vote.

Rep. David Jenkins, whose district includes the Flint River, is one of the Republicans who voted against the bill, which he said goes too far. He argued that last year’s bill has been in effect now for several months without issue. And he said lawmakers should let the courts settle the matter.

“We risk passing a bill that changes law that is the direct subject of a pending lawsuit,” Jenkins said. “The bill also limits the use of navigable waters in an unprecedented way never before seen in the history of the state.

“It differentiates what the public can do on navigable waters based on whether the property owner owns the stream bed or not. This requires the boating public and fishing public to have a knowledge of property lines that they have no way to know as they float downstream,” he added.

 The bill now heads to the Senate. The last day of the legislative session is March 28. 

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.