Flathead Lake Bridge Project Temporarily Halted

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County has issued a stop-work order on what has become a controversial bridge-building project on the north shore of Flathead Lake, near Bigfork.

The permit issued for the bridge, which will be used to restore access to a portion of private property that was once a spit but is now an island in the lake, allowed for 481 feet of bridge length and 16 feet of width.

However, according to Flathead County planning director BJ Grieve, the developer acknowledged having to add more length to the structure due to running into obstacles.

“We said, ‘Well, you better stop, because now you’re out of compliance with the permit,’” Grieve said.

Being out of compliance with the permit is different than being out of compliance with the Flathead County Lake and Lakeshore Protection Regulations, Grieve noted.

In 2011, Jolene Dugan submitted an application for a lakeshore construction project for the access bridge, a project that is not specifically listed in the regulations as work requiring a permit, nor is it listed in the unallowable construction or installation projects in the Lakeshore Protection Zone.

In a memo dating back to when Grieve was considering the project, he wrote that the bridge wouldn’t be considered a roadway because it is entirely on private property and does not provide access to any other property or any existing public road, nor would it be considered a dock because it wouldn’t provide boat moorage, access to a moorage area, swimming facilities or related activities.

But construction would be similar to that of a dock, Grieve reasoned, and the bridge would have pilings, which are allowed with a permit.

Grieve also took into consideration the lake frontage on Dockstader Island and the mainland when calculating how large the bridge could be, and that the Sortino family, which owns most of the land, pays taxes on all of it, including the portion that is underwater during the summer connecting the island to the mainland.

The bridge would also provide for a canoe overpass so people could still use the water, Grieve wrote.

The planning office forwarded the permit application to the Flathead County Commission, which approved it in March 2011.

Now that construction on the project has started three years after the fact, Grieve said there has been plenty of public attention paid to the new structure. None of it has been subject to public hearings because that isn’t the protocol for lakeshore permits, he said, but if a major variance is required to continue the project, that would involve a public hearing.

For the project to continue, the county commission would either have to grant a permit amendment, which is not an uncommon occurrence, or the developer will have to apply for a major variance.

“Our primary objective with this situation and with any others is to do the best we can to treat everyone equally,” Grieve said.

Roger Sortino, who has been part of the permitting process because his family owns the land, though he does not own the land anymore, said he had no comment on the issue when reached by the Beacon.

Dave Hadden, an adjacent landowner to the Sortino property, said he’s been keeping an eye on how the project is coming along. Hadden said he was primarily concerned about what he considers the developer’s attempt to get the county to officially abandon an access road on Holt Drive, located between private property and the waterfowl protection area.

Hadden started a petition to prevent such a move by the county, though none has been officially considered so far.

Lakeshore property owners have spoken publicly about dealing with trespassing from people trying to reach the lake, and the trash, tire marks and burned-out fires left behind, despite the no-trespassing signs.

As for the bridge, if the developer wanted to connect the bridge to Holt Drive with a road, he would have to apply for a floodplain development permit if the road consisted of fill dirt and crushed gravel, Grieve said. There would be no such permit required if someone wanted to just drive across a floodplain.

Another option could be trying to get the property’s status as a floodplain changed on FEMA maps, Grieve said.

As of Monday, April 28, the developer had not filed a permit amendment application, Grieve said. If the planning office receives one, and it is accepted as a permit amendment, it will be forwarded to the county commission for a decision, Grieve said.

“It will not be processed faster than anyone else,” Grieve said. “We’re in the busy season, but we will not bump it ahead.”

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