The Flathead County Commission approved a compromise Tuesday that brings closure to a public-access dispute on McGregor Lake that started well over a decade ago, assuming the agreement’s stipulations are executed.
At the heart of the longstanding controversy is a road that parallels the lake’s northern shoreline and provides the only access to a 65-acre plot of state land under the purview of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Dating back to 2001, property owners had encroached upon the road’s right-of-way in various ways, from building lawns and structures to placing boulders, which led to years of courtroom wrangling and unsuccessful attempts at negotiation, involving private landowners, FWP, Flathead County and Flathead Wildlife, Inc., a sportsmen’s group.
Flathead Wildlife, Inc. initiated the most recent round of litigation when it sued the county last year, arguing that the county’s efforts to remedy the road dispute, per a 2011 district judge’s decision that ruled against the landowners, were insufficient for full restoration of public access.
That lawsuit prompted out-of-court negotiations, which led to the agreement approved by county commissioners on Jan. 9. The agreement came in the form of a petition drafted by landowners in which all the parties have agreed to a 30-foot public right-of-way, a compromise down from the original 60-foot right-of-way, as well as a 15-foot road.
The county has also agreed to mark both the centerline and right-of-way’s outer boundaries, providing clarity for both landowners and the public. Once those markers are in place and the existing encroachments are removed, including a berm of soil laid as part of a landowner’s lawn, Flathead Wildlife, Inc. will drop its lawsuit, according to the group’s president, Jim Vashro.
The road in question was originally a highway, deeded to the county in 1926 by Northern Pacific Railway, until the new U.S. Highway 2 route was established. For decades, it provided access to a chunk of timberland that, while private, was used for public recreation, according to Vashro. When FWP took control of the acreage through a land exchange in 1993, the plot was formalized as a public-recreation site, with a long stretch of shoreline access to McGregor Lake.
After Plum Creek Timber Co. sold 15 acres flanking the roadway and the acreage was subdivided into five lots, it was discovered in 2001 that a landowner had obstructed the road with rocks and debris, and a private detour had been constructed. That discovery, along with subsequent encroachments — a home constructed in the right-of-way and a lawn built over the road — discovered in 2005, laid the groundwork for the years-long quarrel.
Representatives from the state and Flathead Wildlife, Inc. voiced their support for the petition at the Jan. 9 hearing, as did Randall Ogle, the attorney for landowners involved in the dispute.