Church Slough Access Improvements Challenged by Lawsuit

By Beacon Staff

A landowner has filed a lawsuit against Flathead County and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks after the county installed a boat ramp and other improvements to a public access point on Church Slough earlier this year.

Dennis Carver donated the land for the public access in 2007 after the county agreed to abandon Wagner Lane, which ran along the slough. The donation came as part of his subdivision plat for River Vista Subdivision, several lots of which became waterfront properties once the road was abandoned.

Wagner Lane was a water access point for many Flathead residents, and Carver agreed to donate the land in an effort to avoid lawsuits over this access, Deputy County Attorney Peter Steele said.

Flathead Wildlife, Inc., a local sportsmen’s group, was a part of the negotiation over access in 2007, according to its president, Chuck Hunt. He said the park donation assured the public’s right to use the slough as an entry to the Flathead River once the road was abandoned.

Now, Carver claims the county violated the terms under which he donated parkland. Though the public had been using it as an access point for Church Slough, it had historically only been used to hand-carry watercraft, such as canoes, to the water, the lawsuit states.

The suit says Carver wanted this tradition to continue when he donated the land and that Carver was unaware the county wanted to install a boat ramp.

The lawsuit references the subdivision’s environmental assessment, a planning department staff report and an e-mail Carver sent the Flathead County Commission, all of which indicated the park would include five parking spots and a “walking path down to the slough where one could launch a canoe or pull an ice fishing house in the winter.”

A boat ramp allows unrestricted access to the water and could harm the shoreline, the lawsuit contends, and it also lowers the value of Carver’s surrounding properties.

“Flathead County’s decision to move forward with the installation of a boat ramp and other improvements was done arbitrarily and in violation of its representations to (Carver and Lower Valley Properties, Inc.), and its actions have denied (them), in all practical effect, beneficial and economic use of their property,” the suit states.

The suit also says the county parks department unlawfully pursued a permit from FWP to install the ramp, and it calls for a revocation of that permit, as well as the floodplain development permit issued by Flathead County.

Carver is also seeking compensatory damages, costs and attorney’s fees.

Steele, however, disagrees that there were any stipulations to the donated land, noting that the written deed is unrestricted.

The Montana Association of Counties will provide Flathead County’s legal defense against the lawsuit, Steele said.

Flathead County Parks and Recreation Director Jed Fisher said the current modifications – boat ramp, eight parking spaces and a vehicle turnaround – were needed to bring the access up to county standards.

“I have to build a launch to a certain standard to have it covered by county insurance,” Fisher said. “The discussion was always to build it to that standard and that’s what was done.”

The land belongs to Flathead County, Fisher said, and the park should be seen as a benefit to the other landowners along the slough.

“We will be a good neighbor,” Fisher said. “Rest assured to everybody, the public and the neighbors, we will mow it, we will pick up garbage, we will enforce the rules.”

Fisher also noted that there is currently a horsepower restriction in place at the slough access, limiting boats to 10-horsepower engines or less.

This has become a source of contention with Flathead Wildlife, Hunt said, adding that the limitation was put in place to avoid a lawsuit from Carver.

Hunt said the horsepower limitation doesn’t make sense because not everyone on the slough faces the same restrictions.

“It’s either all or none,” Hunt said.

Flathead Wildlife was going to propose making Church Slough a no-wake zone, Hunt said, because wake can be destructive to the banks and the area wildlife. A no-wake zone would make all boats, large or small, drive slowly through the slough.

Fisher said the horsepower restrictions are not permanent and the park’s department is waiting for FWP to do a study on what, if any, limitations should be in place.

“We’re not saying it’s going to be this forever,” Fisher said. “We want a true study to take place before we have anything larger at this time.”