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Flathead Lake’s Bridge to Nowhere in limbo after judge orders removal

A 481-foot bridge stretches from the north shore of Flathead Lake to Dockstader Island on May 9. A Flathead County District Court judge has ordered the bridge’s removal. (David Reese/Missoula Current)

The north shore of Flathead Lake remains exposed this time of year.

Near Bigfork, the remains of last year’s detritus lie scattered along the water’s edge. A couple of old tires sit submerged in the mud, and thousands of logs, trees and driftwood line the shore. The nearby wetlands are alive with birdsong.

Flathead Lake is coming to life, its summer life anyway.

Then there is the bridge: the 481-foot concrete platform that sits on deeply set iron posts stretches from the north shore of Flathead next to the Osprey View wildlife area out to Dockstader Island, about 300 yards from the north shore.

Dockstader never used to be an island, but rather was part of a peninsula that stretched from the north shore of Flathead Lake. But since the 1930s, the management of Kerr Dam has kept the lake levels artificially high into the fall, and the peninsula eventually eroded into an island.

That’s why Roger Sortino and daughter Jolene Dugan, who own land along the north shore of Flathead Lake, decided to build a bridge from their property out to Dockstader Island.

And that’s when they ran into trouble.

In 2011, Dugan applied to the Flathead County Planning Board for a permit to build a bridge from the shoreline to the island. The Flathead County commissioners, seeing no need for public input on the bridge, took the planning board’s recommendation and approved the permit application. The bridge came to life.

And a public outcry ensued.

David Hadden, who lives adjacent to the bridge project at the base of a rock outcropping, raised his voice, gathered public support and helped to create the Community Association for North Shore Conservation.

The organization, with the help of Kalispell attorney Don Murray, sued the Flathead County commissioners in 2016, citing violations of the county planning process and the Montana Lakeshore Protection Act.

Jolene Dugan, Margrit Matter and Avah Walker were added as intervenors in the case, since they own property affected by the bridge permit.

The North Shore conservation group prevailed in court, and a Flathead County District Court judge last year ordered Dugan to remove the bridge. But the bridge remains, 6 feet above the dry lakebed, waiting for the rising waters of Flathead Lake to surround it.

The bridge’s removal was delayed while District Judge Robert Allison ruled on the plaintiffs’ motion to award attorney fees for Murray’s work on the case. In February, Allison denied the motion and the plaintiffs asked him to review the ruling. He denied the motion again on May 2.

That decision finalized the judgment against Dugan and set in motion a 60-day timeframe for Dugan to appeal — or accept — Allison’s order that the bridge be removed.

“It’s been languishing,” Murray said in a phone interview. “Ever since the judge ruled that the bridge permit was invalid, we’ve been waiting for that decision to become final.”

Flathead County, Dugan or her co-plaintiffs can appeal, but Murray said he doesn’t know if they will.

“We’ve got finality, and we have the appeal clock running,” he said. “It’s back inching its way forward. We’ll see what happens.”

Upon appeal, Dugan could argue that the permit was valid, or that the judge should have sent the permit application back to the planning board rather than ordering the bridge’s removal, Murray said.

Montana’s Lakeshore Protection Act prohibits roads in protection zones along waterways, and that was one of the county’s points of contention in awarding the permit. The county contended that a “bridge is not a road,” Murray said.

“But it’s really a road,” he said. “The next question is, how does one go about enforcing that judgment? There is a structure in the lake that was placed there without a valid permit.”

Protesters float near the bridge in kayaks and canoes in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Community Association for North Shore Conservation)

In May 2015, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted the bridge’s construction with a cease and desist letter, but construction continued after Dugan got a permit extension from Flathead County. The cease and desist letter was never rescinded by the Corps.

When the bridge was nearly completed, the builders realized the bridge would not actually reach the island, so Dugan had to apply for another permit to extend the bridge all the way to the island.

Murray said it will be up to Flathead County to enforce the judgment ordering the bridge’s removal, if that is the final result, but the defendants could drag their feet. “We have to figure out how to get it out of there, and we’ll have to be the catalysts to get that going,” Murray said.

Dugan, Margrit Matter, Avah Walker and Flathead Properties LLC in February filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Missoula against the Army Corps of Engineers. The complaint alleges the Corps arbitrarily established Dugan’s lakeshore property as wetlands, thereby creating the issue with Flathead County over illegally building a road in a wetland.

“I have to think he’s going to fight to keep that bridge and keep this rolling,” Murray said.

The suit alleges that the marshy areas along the north shore of Flathead Lake, on Dugan’s property, are not wetlands, although they are mere feet away from Flathead Lake.

David Hadden, of the Community Association for North Shore Conservation, said the legal process has been a long one, but he’s satisfied with the outcome of Judge Allison’s order to have the bridge removed.

“Bridges that carry roads are specifically not permitted in the Lakeshore Protection Zone,” he said. “How the county commissioners at the time of the decision got that simple prohibition wrong still perplexes us.

“We met with the county prior to filing our suit, and prior to the beginning of the bridge’s construction, to try and find a resolution, to no avail. We will likely talk to the county soon about how they think they will proceed to have the bridge removed. We remain optimistic that Flathead Lake’s beautiful north will be restored in the near future.”

A request for comment from Dugan’s attorneys was not returned as of press time.