SPOKANE — The state argued Thursday that two brothers have no legal right to establish a competing ferry service to the remote town of Stehekin in the Cascade Range.
The family that operates a ranch-style resort in Stehekin, which is reachable only by boat, floatplane or on foot, has sued the state Transportation Commission, arguing that a nearly century-old law governing ferry operations has resulted in a government-imposed monopoly on Lake Chelan.
“Establishing ferries is the prerogative of the state, not a private right,” said Fronda Woods, an assistant attorney general representing the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, which has asked U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice to dismiss the lawsuit.
Rice heard arguments from both sides on Thursday and then said he would rule at a later date.
Attorney Michael Bindas, representing brothers Jim and Cliff Courtney, said they wanted a better way to bring customers to their businesses in Stehekin.
The Courtney brothers argue that preventing them from operating a competing ferry violates their right to use the navigable waters of the United States, which is protected by the 14th Amendment.
“We didn’t fight the Civil War for the right to go canoeing,” Bindas, who works for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm based in Arlington, Va., said.
He said there should be no government limit on the number of ferry operators on the scenic 55-mile long mountain lake.
Stehekin is a popular vacation spot among people who relish its pristine beauty and isolation: There is little telephone service and no roads lead to the town. Most visitors travel up the lake on a ferry operated by the same company since 1929.
The boat leaves from Chelan, at the south end of the lake, each morning during the summer and less frequently in the winter.
Some of Stehekin’s 80 residents have long complained that the schedule doesn’t best serve them or visitors to their community and want to provide a ferry service of their own. But they’ve been thwarted by a state law requiring potential operators to obtain a certificate showing the public need for service.
The Courtney brothers, whose family operates the Stehekin Valley Ranch, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Spokane seeking to overturn that regulation. The Courtneys have failed four times to get a certificate to operate an alternative service.
The Lake Chelan Boat Co. has had the exclusive right since 1929 to provide ferry service on Lake Chelan and carries about 25,000 passengers each year.
In 2009, state lawmakers directed the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission to study the ferry service on Lake Chelan, after some residents complained. But the commission ruled that the current service ensures basic, year-round passenger transportation between and Chelan and surrounding communities that have no alternative options.