After almost four years of legal wrangling, the Montana Supreme Court on July 6 put an end to the debate over the “Bridge to Nowhere” on Flathead Lake’s spectacular north shore. The high court wrote that District Judge Robert Allison “rationally justified his decision” that the enormous 519-by-16-foot vehicular bridge was built without a valid permit and must be removed to restore the shore to its original condition.
Make no mistake, this is a huge victory for Montana’s crown jewel Flathead Lake. It’s also a victory for the citizens of Montana who came together at great personal cost to defend the lake’s scenic beauty and the right of citizens to challenge the arbitrary and unlawful decisions of the Flathead County Commission.
We hope that the court’s decision, in addition to restoring the north shore of the lake in accordance with the law, will result in a course correction for the land-planning process in Flathead County. While the rights of property owners are precious to all of us, achieving a balance between those rights and those of the general public remains essential. The Montana Lakeshore Protection Act, along with the county’s lakeshore regulations, provide a wise foundation for maintaining that balance.
There will always be differences of opinion as to how to accomplish this balance, and that is precisely why we have clear regulations regarding lakeshore projects, as well as a process that allows for public input. Unfortunately, in the case of the permitting and construction of this bridge, both the regulations and the public input process were effectively ignored. The courts were crystal clear in this assessment, and we agree.
The high court’s decision is short and to the point. It upheld all of District Court Judge Allison’s key decision points. The Community Association for North Shore Conservation (CANSC) – which brought the challenge to the permit – did have legal standing; the challenge was brought in a timely manner; the commissioners did not adequately assess impacts to Flathead Lake’s scenic values (protected by law); the commissioners made a “nonsensical” decision to claim a “vehicular bridge” was not a “road,” which are not allowed in the Lakeshore Protection Zone.
The court also upheld Judge Allison’s decision to not award attorney fees to CANSC on the grounds that our case did not “vindicate constitutional interests.” Citizens need to hold their government accountable, and that process is arduous and expensive. Even though the courts have decided otherwise, we believe that public interest is best served by having a more liberal policy of reimbursement of legal expenses to organizations that correctly identify erroneous or illegal activities on the part of their government.
CANSC wishes to thank Whitefish native and former state legislator Bob Brown and his contemporaries for their foresighted Montana Lakeshore Protection Act passed into law in 1977.
We also wish to publicly thank our attorney Don Murray for his excellent representation and defense of Flathead Lake and his selfless devotion to this effort at great personal cost.
Dave Hadden and Jeffrey Funk are co-chairs of the Community Association for North Shore Conservation.