Judge Orders Removal of Bridge on North Shore of Flathead Lake

County did not fulfill its duties when considering the original project to Dockstader Island, judge says

By Molly Priddy
The bridge to Dockstader Island in Bigfork on June 16, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

A Flathead County District Court judge has ruled that the county commission erred when permitting what became a controversial bridge project to Dockstader Island in Flathead Lake, and said the bridge must be removed.

In his Sept. 16 ruling, Judge Robert Allison said the Flathead County Commission acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner when it approved the Dockstader Island project in 2011.

A local group called Community Association for North Shore Conservation (CANSC) filed suit against the county in 2015 after the project began construction in 2014. The group alleged the commission unlawfully approved the permit from the beginning, with which Allison was in ultimate agreement.

“We’re just really pleased. We felt pretty confident,” said Dave Hadden, head of CANSC said on Thursday morning. “The court’s ruling was pretty clear and pretty decisive. We don’t feel that there was a lot of wiggle room here in terms of appeal.”

Landowner Jolene Dugan and her father, Roger Sortino, successfully applied for a permit to build a 481-foot long dock-like structure restoring access to a portion of private land that was once a peninsula. After multiple permit revisions, the final product was a 581-foot long, 16-foot wide bridge in place on the shoreline.

The crux of the issue lies within the Lakeshore Protection Act. According to the LPA, county officials must seek public comment on “significant” construction projects along the shoreline. The 2011 commission deemed the project minimal because it wasn’t technically considered a roadway since it’s on private property and doesn’t provide access to other property or an existing road.

In his ruling, Allison blasted that logic, calling it “nonsensical.”

“The bridge is a vehicular roadway, 481 feet long and 16 feet wide. It is in essence an elevated roadway over water or an obstruction. A bridge which supports vehicular traffic does not exist without a roadway,” Allison wrote.

The judge also ruled that the commission did not consider all of the necessary impacts of the projects, particularly the visual impact it could have on the area. The county argued former Commissioner Jim Dupont covered that particular issue during the hearing in which the project was approved, but the judge said the transcripts negate that logic.

“The visual impact of the structure and its construction was not addressed,” Allison wrote. “This failure alone renders the commissioners’ decision arbitrary and capricious.”

Allison said the general impact of the bridge being considered minimal was arbitrary and capricious, because it’s “hard to see how a 481-foot long and 16-foot wide vehicular bridge can be properly considered as insignificant or having minimal impact.”

Both the commission and the Flathead County Planning Board erred in this regard, Allison ruled.

The judge also found that the original application for the bridge, which did not include any references to connecting roads, was incomplete for that reason.

“A vehicular bridge would be useless without connecting roads and if the bridge is in the lakeshore protection zone any connecting road will at least in part be in the Lakeshore Protection Zone. Without this information it is not possible to consider the impact of the project,” Allison wrote.

Hadden said his group is thrilled with the result, and plans on throwing a party next week to celebrate.

“He’s basically said the lakeshore has to be restored and the bridge has to come out,” Hadden said of the ruling. “(The LPA) is the only law that protects the lakeshores of our state. It was a really important ruling.”

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