Bridges and Roads Dominate Commission Meetings

Commissioners discuss North Fork Road easement, North Shore bridge removal, Baker 80 subdivision

By Micah Drew
Flathead County Courthouse. Beacon file photo

The Flathead County commissioners at their Oct. 6 and 8 meetings focused much of their time on several road projects within the county.

On Tuesday, the commissioners signed off on an application for an easement from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) along approximately one mile of the North Fork Road located 1.5 miles south of the Canadian border.

When the Forest Service built the road in the 1940s no easement from the state was obtained for the section in question. Much of the road remains unpaved, including the segment near the border.

The current lack of an easement has the potential to derail a multi-agency partnership program to improve the northern portion of the road.

In 2016, Flathead County joined with federal partners to rehabilitate the upper stretches of the North Fork Road. The project, part of the Montana Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP), seeks to improve roughly 21 miles of the road with aggregate surfacing, crush and laydown, to improve access for thousands of recreationists every year.

The partnership that applied for the FLAP money included Flathead County, the Flathead National Forest, Glacier National Park, and U.S. Border Patrol. The funding will pay for all but a 13.42% match required from the local agencies.

Without the easement, the Federal Highway Administration is unable to do any work along that section of road, according to Flathead County Public Works Director David Prunty.

“In essence, they would not take a project through trespass to do the last mile and a half [but] we could start at the southern boundary of this section and just go south,” Prunty said. “Which is doable, but that’s two and a half miles of my worst five miles up there that we wouldn’t’ be doing which was our biggest goal of this FLAP application.”

The requested easement is 60 feet wide — 30 feet on either side of the midline of the road — and totals 7.813 acres.

The DNRC gave a cost estimate for the easement between $4,000 and $5,000 per acre. The approximately $35,000 will come from the road department budget, and will be able to go towards the matching funds for the FLAP project. The application first goes to the local DNRC and then to the state land board.

Construction for the project is currently slated for next summer.

North Shore Bridge

Flathead County Planning and Zoning Director Mark Mussman updated the commissioners Oct. 8 on the status of the controversial north shore bridge.

The Montana Supreme Court ordered the removal of the bridge in 2019.

“It’s moving at a snail’s pace,” Mussman said. “Time is quickly running out for any kind of bridge removal during low water in 2021.”

Currently two floodplain development permit applications by the landowners are under review for the project. One is for a road from Holt Drive to the bridge for access to remove it, and another is for access to a neighboring parcel that has been listed for sale to offset the cost of removing the bridge.

The commissioners discussed potentially waiving permit fees in order to push the project through and get the bridge removed, but Commissioner Pam Holmquist pointed out that they did not want to set a precedent for future applications.

Mussman told the commissioners there had been no contact with consultants over the actual plans to remove the bridge.

“There is a little bit of progress, albeit miniscule,” Mussman said, noting that the landowners have suggested the county remove the bridge. “I have a five pound sledge and a wheelbarrow, so I could try that.”

Baker 80 Subdivision

The commissioners also discussed a preliminary plat for the Baker 80 Subdivision, which will create 16 lots on 80 acres north of KM Ranch Road and west of U.S. Highway 93.

The subdivision was a point of contention at the Sept. 9 meeting of the planning board over the primary access to the development. According to the preliminary plat documents, access to the subdivision is proposed from Whitefish Village Drive via Prairie View Road to the north of the property.

Whitefish Village Drive is a public road with a 60-foot wide right of way in the adjacent Whitefish Hills Village subdivision.

Alternative access to the Baker 80 development is possible via Prairie View Road south to KM Ranch Road. But while a county road easement exists there, the road is not fully constructed and would require approximately 3,000 feet of new construction as opposed to roughly 100 feet if Whitefish Village Drive were utilized.

Residents of the Whitefish Hills Village subdivision out against utilizing their roads, arguing that as privately maintained roads, they did not qualify as publicly accessible roadways.

Commissioner Phillip Mitchell brought up the “legal elephant in the room” over how public access was defined by the county on roads that are privately maintained.

The commissioners considered it an “either, or” decision for requiring access from one location versus the other and opted to send the agenda item back to the planning board, since changing the subdivision access to the south would be a substantive change to the application.

“I think it should have more public notice and comment time,” Holmquist said.