North Shore Bridge Controversy Continues

In court documents, landowners blame delay of bridge’s removal on financial strains

By Micah Drew
A paddler at the Restore the Shore Rendezvous in 2015. Beacon file photo

Almost a year after the Montana Supreme Court affirmed a Flathead County District Court decision that a bridge on the north shore of Flathead Lake must be removed, the structure is still in place.

Recent court documents filed by landowner Jolene Dugan, and her father Roger Sortino, point to financial problems as the current cause of delay. Members of the Community Association for North Shore Conservation (CANSC), the nonprofit that brought the initial suit to overturn the county’s approval of the building permit, are getting frustrated.

“Perhaps a delay in removing the bridge could be understood if a legal grey area remained,” said David Hadden, co-chair of CANSC in an email. “But none does. Both the District Court and Supreme Court have ruled on this. Case Closed.”

A pair of affidavits from Dugan and Sortino, filed on June 2, detail the monetary issues involved with removing the structure. Dugan stated she did not have the money to pay for the construction of the bridge, nor for its removal, and reiterated that Sortino is in charge of all financing and decisions regarding the property and the bridge.

Sortino’s affidavit outlined financial strains that occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and said a land sale is the only way to cover the estimated cost of removal. Sortino included a listing agreement for an adjacent property along Flathead Lake, which will be listed for $1.7 million.

The controversy over the bridge goes back almost a decade, when Dugan and Sortino successfully applied for a permit to build a bridge connecting their property on the north shore of Flathead Lake to an island called Dockstader Island that forms during the lake’s high point every summer. The property is a peninsula the rest of the year.

The Flathead County commissioners approved the development without involving the public. This initial permit, granted in 2011, was for a 481-foot bridge from the lakeshore to Dockstader Island. The permit was later amended and a 581-foot bridge was completed in 2016.

CANSC sued, alleging the permit was illegal because the Lakeshore Protection Act requires “significant” construction projects along the shoreline to involve public comment. Judge Robert Allison ruled in 2016 that the lakeshore permit was invalid, the structure would have to be removed and the area restored to its natural state. Following an appeal, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the ruling last summer.

In March, the District Court ordered attorneys for the bridge owners to submit a copy of a plan “created by an engineer” regarding the removal of the bridge.

The submitted report, drafted by Randall Overton, a hydrogeologist with Water Source Hydrology, detailed the permits and processes that would be required. The project is described as requiring “a similar array of equipment, but different/additional hydrogeological considerations than were necessary to construct it.”

The report also states that “while the goal would be to obtain approval in time to utilize the construction season in 2021, it is hard to predict exactly when to expect approval due to the many steps of review and the public input.”

Attorneys for CANSC filed a response that claimed the proposed removal plan involved “an absurd level of complexity,” and that the bridge was built with a single permit from the county, but the new plan “calls for at least seven permits, and the involvement of five different agencies (not to mention a major variance, half a dozen minor variances, and an EIC).”

CANSC plans to file another motion soon to request, among other things, the court compel Dugan and Sortino to submit a plan detailing how the bridge will be removed and provide that if the bridge is not removed by May 2021, third parties will do the work.

The court would not comment on the ongoing case. Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell said that while the matter is in the hands of the court, “we’d like to have it out sooner than later, but I think they’re trying to drag this out as long as possible.”

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