PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – As more people are building homes along the Willamette River, there’s confusion about what is considered private property versus the public’s right to use waterways.

KOIN 6 News, previously reported an exclusive story about a fence that a property owner built on the sandbank down into the Willamette River in Clackamas County.

“The Willamette River is a public river and belongs to everybody to enjoy,” said Ali Ryan Hansen, with the Oregon Department of State Lands.
The state said this fence in particular is illegal because it blocks access to the river and ordered the property owner’s to remove it.

Currently, the fence still stands and the state said they do not want to fine the property owner, but that they’re “weighing all options,” including using a previous Clackamas County court order from 2009 to get them to take it down.

The property owners – Jodie and Tim Polich – told KOIN 6 people have frequently disrespected their property and built this fence after witnessing people pooping, lighting fireworks and letting their dogs off leash.

“We believe our actions regarding installation of this fence is both reasonable, legal and done properly. The State and the County have done nothing more than assert our fence is not legal or done properly. We respectfully disagree, ” property owner Jodie Polich said in an email.

While this fence has struck a chord with residents in the area, avid kayakers tell KOIN 6 News this isn’t the only property owner in the area who seems to think the river bank is theirs to police.

“As you go up and down [the river] you can count them, I know where they are. Old, derelict easy chairs with a sign that says — ‘no trespassing,’ or ‘private land,’ — well it’s not, that’s not true,” said kayaker Peter Eddy. “The way the law is written and the way the law interprets it, it is public.”

Now, many in the community are asking what is private property and considered “trespassing” versus the public’s right to use waterways. 

The state considers the Willamette River a navigable river, meaning it belongs to all Oregonians.

“We are lucky we have it,” Eddy said.

According to the Department of State Lands, along navigable rivers, like the Willamette, the public has the right to use the river and its bank up to the ordinary high-water line. Though this line differs where you go, permanent vegetation usually stops at the high waterline.

Determining the Line of Ordinary High Water 

The ordinary high water line is defined by Oregon state law as a line on the bank made by the water when it rises to its highest level each year to the limit of upland vegetation. It is not the flood line. (Courtesy Oregon Department of State Lands) December 1, 2021.

Along that small strip of sandbank, the state says the public has the right to walk, picnic, fish, or pull a kayak up on. But the state stresses people must be respectful and legal because this butts right up to someone’s home.