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Salt Lake City Corp. v. Haik

Salt Lake City Corp. v. Haik, 2020 UT 29 (Durrant, C.J.)

Constitutional

A Trust owned a piece of land in the Albion Basin, a part of unincorporated Salt Lake County. The Trust sought to develop the land, but, even though the land was located within the water-service area of Salt Lake City (City), the City lacked the infrastructure to actually supply the land with water. The Trust argued that because its lot fell within the City’s approved water-service area, it was thereby an “inhabitant” of the City, entitling it to water services under Utah Constitution article XI, section 6. The district court did not agree, finding that an “inhabitant” was “someone residing within the corporate boundaries of a city.” The Trust appealed, and the court of appeals adopted the district court’s interpretation of “inhabitant,” determining that the Trust’s lot was “beyond the limits” of the City and that the Trust could not, therefore, compel the City to provide it with sufficient water to develop the land. The Trust sought certiorari, and the Utah Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals, holding:

  • The court of appeals did not err in concluding that the term “inhabitant” applies only to those who reside within a city’s corporate boundaries instead of a city’s approved water-service area.
    • The trust is not an inhabitant of the City under the plain language of article XI, section 6, of the Utah Constitution. The Trust reads article XI, section 6 as “all . . . water rights now owned or hereafter acquired by any municipal corporation, shall be preserved, maintained and operated by it” (referring to “municipal corporation”) “for supplying its” (referring to “water rights”) “inhabitants with water at reasonable charges.” Under the Trust’s interpretation, the phrase “supplying its inhabitants with water” refers to the inhabitants of a city’s approved water-service area, not the inhabitants of a city’s municipal boundaries. But because a pronoun usually refers to the nearest reasonable antecedent, the pronoun “its” refers to “municipal corporation,” not “water rights.”
    •  Ratification-era definitions of “inhabitant” provided by the parties also support the conclusion that “inhabitant” refers to a person residing in a municipal corporation: an inhabitant is a (1) “dweller,” or one who is “distinguished from an occasional lodger or visitor”; (2) “one who has a legal settlement in a town, city or parish”; and (3) “one who resides actually and permanently in a given place, and has his domicile there.” The Trust merely holds undeveloped land it seeks to develop so that others may inhabit it, but the Trust itself does not dwell or reside anywhere.
    • A Trust is also not a person who has continuously resided in any county in Utah for a period of four months. So that definition is unhelpful, as it does not speak to how a person, let alone a trust, gains settlement in a municipality instead of a county.
  • The proceedings of the Utah Constitutional Convention indicate that the public would not have considered the Trust to be an inhabitant of the City at the time of ratification. The framers did not debate the meaning of the word “inhabitant” at the constitutional convention discussing that provision. But the framers consistently used the word “inhabitant” when they referred to those living within Utah’s official boundaries, which indicates that they understood the term as those living within a jurisdiction’s formal boundaries. “Inhabitant” was also used to refer to those whom a city may count among its official population.
  • Similarly, the 1898 Utah Code indicates that the framers would not have considered the Trust an inhabitant of the City. In the code, inhabitants were those living within a city’s corporate boundaries or who were counted among its official population.
  • The legal understanding of “inhabitant” at the time the constitution was ratified did not include entities like the Trust. At that time, the word “inhabitant” meant many things: an occupant of land; a resident; a permanent resident; one having domicile; a citizen; and a qualified voter. Utah jurisprudence at that time suggests the term “inhabitant” was understood by the public to be synonymous with “resident.” And many other courts tasked with interpreting the word “inhabitant” in the late nineteenth century concluded it was synonymous with “resident.” But in any event, the Trust does not reside on the land it owns in the Albion Basin. 

Read the full court opinion

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