PROVO — A federal judge has opted to replace the "special master" who will decide the fate of roughly 20,000 acres of Utah Lake shoreline property after landowners raised concerns over the initial appointee.

U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball had previously named Owen Olpin, an attorney from Teasdale, Wayne County, as special master — or arbitrator — to determine the official lake boundary that will determine whether shoreline property owners control the disputed land or whether it will remain under state control. Olpin will be replaced by Michael Goldsmith, a law professor at Brigham Young University.

Landowners asked Kimball to reconsider the appointment after they became aware of Olpin's relationship with a number of environmental organizations.

In a court order published Tuesday, Kimball wrote, "The court does not find that there are grounds for disqualification of Mr. Oplin as the Special Master in this case. . . . The court also is absolutely convinced that Mr. Olpin would not show any type of bias in his role as Special Master. However, his relationship with environmental organizations has apparently caused the defendants to believe that there may be some appearance of bias in favor of the intervening environmental organizations in this case."

That concern, wrote Kimball, was sufficient to prompt him to name a new special master from the list of nominees previously submitted for consideration.

Olpin, who headed a similar dispute resolution involving Wyoming and Nebraska concerning North Platte River water, did not return calls seeking comment on Tuesday.

Goldsmith, who has served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission as vice-chairman and who teaches courses on criminal procedure, evidence, trial advocacy and complex criminal investigations, was also unavailable for comment.

The court has asked Goldsmith to submit his own affidavit by March 25. People wishing to comment on the appointment should write to the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City by March 31.

The special master is tasked with hearing all of the pertinent evidence involved in an eight-year legal battle between the Utah Division of Natural Resources and the landowners whose properties abut the Utah County lake.

The special master will determine where the legal boundary or high water mark lies and who has the right to the property that is usually above water.

The high water line has been the focus of debate because there was no official recording of the lake's elevation at the time of statehood, and the water level has fluctuated dramatically over the years.

Landowners have laid claim to shoreline land and property that includes much of the Provo Bay area that is currently underwater. They say they have the right to develop those lands and keep people off them if they so desire.

The state's attorneys have said the landowners are trying to claim land that has traditionally been available to the public.

Several environmental groups have joined with the state saying they want to protect up to 20,000 acres that could be lost.

The suit originally included 237 property owners. Settlements negotiated by the state has reduced that number to just over 50 that will be involved in the review process.


E-mail: jburke@desnews.com