Supreme Court deals Binkleys a setback in battle of Fairbanks tourism giants

The Binkley-Reeves family feud over land rights at Gold Dredge No. 8 in Fairbanks is headed for another round in court, after a victory of John Reeves in the Alaska Supreme Court.

Reeves, a contrarian and independent thinker, is one of those larger-than-life characters, both literally and figuratively.  He was in the short-lived "Goldfathers" reality TV show and he once successfully sued Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. for appropriating his idea for a pipeline tourist attraction near Fox. He owns thousands of acres of mining claims and has never been afraid to irritate people. He is an expert at working the angles.

It was Reeves who saw hidden tourist potential in a property 10 miles north of Fairbanks, close to the pipeline, where everyone else saw only a rusted and broken-down gold dredge.

The Alyeska case was about the  protection of a marketing idea. Reeves argues the current case with the Binkley family, among the leading figures in Alaska tourism, is about land access rights. Reeves argues he has a 100-foot easement and the right to build a road on property the Binkleys own next to the gold dredge. .

The Binkleys, owners of the Anchorage Daily News, rose to prominence when Mary Binkley and the late Jim Binkley built the Riverboat Discovery into the largest and most popular tourist attraction in Fairbanks. Their children and grandchildren are now the key players in the business, which expanded with the purchase of Gold Dredge No. 8 from Holland America.

Reeves first developed the gold dredge into a major Alaska tourist attraction more than 30 years ago and later sold the property to Holland America.  But he still owns land near the dredge and says he wants to defend his easements. Others will say he also wants to annoy the Binkleys and this is a long-standing family feud.

The Binkleys operate through Godspeed Properties LLC, a company owned by Anchorage Daily News Publisher Ryan Binkley and six other family members, which is named after the first of the boats the family operated on the Chena River, starting in 1950.

In late 2013, Superior Court Judge Bethany Harbison ruled in favor of the Binkleys that by "clear and convincing evidence," the 1986 easement Reeves claimed no longer existed because part of it was covered by a gold mining plant.

The Supreme Court ruled Friday "that the easement still exists in some form for its entire length" and the Superior Court must look at the case again to make the calculation.

Reeves had offered to sell the easement in 2009, but negotiations ended without a deal in 2012. Reeves then announced he wanted to use the easement as public access for a subdivision he had platted beyond the Binkley property. He built a rough dirt road on the easement and the Binkleys responded with a gravel berm to block the way.

(The map below shows the easement off the Old Steese Highway, which Reeves said he wanted for access to the subdivision marked as MS-1709. Reeves also owns the "Byrne Fraction," which connected the easement to Gold Dredge No. 8. The Binkley tourist railroad is on MS-1724 and MS-851, which they own.)

The railroad the Binkleys built to transport passengers to their business in 2012 crosses the easement and they want to avoid a railroad crossing. At a three-day trial in 2013, Reeves said that the Binkleys "came in like a thief and stole" his property rights by building berms to block passage.

"I didn't try and steal the easement," John Binkley said at the trial, adding that he was protecting his family's property rights.

"We weren't trying to sue you John, but that's what prompted us to take action to try and get the injunction and get the court to decide what is the status of the easement," Binkley said at the trial.

The Superior Court said the easement ceased to exist before the Binkleys bought the property, but the Supreme Court has decided otherwise. That means more negotiations, more time in court or both to decide what happens to the railroad that carries tourists to the gold dredge and the road that Reeves wants.

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Dermot ColeComment