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A family that operates a ranch-style resort in a remote Cascades community reachable only by boat, floatplane or on foot filed suit Wednesday against the state transportation commission, arguing that a nearly century-old law governing ferry operations has resulted in a government-imposed monopoly on Lake Chelan.
The community of 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 Stehekin. Most visitors travel up the 55-mile 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 Stehekin 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 80-or-so year-round residents either work for the National Park Service or operate a tourism-related business.
Jim and Cliff Courtney, whose family operates the Stehekin Valley Ranch, filed suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Spokane seeking to overturn that regulation.
Four times the Courtneys have tried to get a certificate to operate an alternative service, and four times they've failed, Cliff Courtney said.
"These are changing times and our clients' needs have changed," he said. "The service as it is now is really for people who come from Chelan and day trippers. It doesn't work for us."
The Courtneys are represented by the nonprofit Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm based in Arlington, Va.
"For nearly a century, Washington politicians have given ferry operators a veto over new competition, and that's not how government power is supposed to be used in America," lawyer Michael Bindas said. "Consumers and entrepreneurs, not the government, should decide whether a ferry business is necessary in Lake Chelan."
Lake Chelan has been classified a "navigable body of water" by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said, ensuring the constitutional right to operate on it.
Marilyn Meehan, a spokeswoman for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said agency officials are aware of the lawsuit and are reviewing it. The state attorney general will file a response, she said.
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 regulated commercial ferry service on Lake Chelan, after some residents complained. But the commission ruled last year that the current ferry service ensures basic, year-round passenger transportation between and Chelan and surrounding communities that have no alternative options.
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