Flathead County Heading for Same Mistake Twice?

It is high time for Flathead County to act assertively to compel removal of the Bridge to Nowhere

By Denise Lang, John Lang, Robert Hoene and Margaret Hoene

The “Bridge to Nowhere” near Bigfork has been in the news for five years and many of us around Flathead County who enjoy the North Shore of Flathead Lake and respect the rule of law now ask, “When will the bridge come down?” Both the District Court and Montana Supreme Court ruled more than a year ago that it must come down. Why the delay?

The owner of the bridge has submitted a plan to the District Court to replace the illegal bridge with a similarly prohibited 1,300-foot-long road and causeway all the way out to Dockstader Island. That plan does not mention removing this new road once the bridge is gone. Will Flathead County approve this new road using the same flawed logic used to unlawfully permit the bridge?

The Court’s order to remove the bridge was based, in part, on the simple fact that roads are not allowed in the 20-foot wide “lakeshore protection zone.” That zone also includes “adjacent wetlands” that are so important for wildlife and filtering out pollutants to keep Flathead Lake clean. The proposed causeway would cut through over 500 feet of North Shore wetlands.

The group that sued the county over the illegal permit, the Community Association for North Shore Conservation (CANSC), went to court at great expense and significant risk, to compel the county to abide by its own rules. CANSC prevailed but was not awarded its attorney’s fees.

And now, over a year later, the county has done virtually nothing to correct its error and restore the North Shore.

As justification for its inaction, the county posits that if it pushes the developer to remove the bridge it invites being sued for “taking” his property (the bridge).

Most people in Flathead County support private property rights. We emphatically do. However, property rights, like all other legal rights have limits.

The Montana Constitution, the Lakeshore Protection Act, and the county’s Lakeshore Regulations all recognize the special balance between private property rights and the public’s interest in the state’s waters. The developer never had a right to build this bridge. Nor did the county have a right to approve a permit for its construction. No right has been “ taken” because no right ever existed. The developer’s rights have not been violated.

It is the public’s rights that have been infringed, including the rights to a healthy shoreline, to navigate Flathead Lake unimpeded, and to enjoy the scenic North Shore without the eyesore of this bridge.

The public is shortchanged when Flathead County shows more concern for a single person who has skirted the law than a community of citizens who have shouldered a heavy burden to compel the county to follow its own rules. The public deserves better from its elected leaders.

It is high time for Flathead County to act assertively to compel removal of the Bridge to Nowhere. The county should do this as the court directed minimizing the damage to the lakeshore and opposing the developer’s plan for a new 1,300-foot-long causeway in Flathead Lake.

Denise Lang, John Lang, Robert Hoene and Margaret Hoene live in Bigfork.

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