A California couple constructing a home on a prominent section of Lower McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park must remove the structure because it was built without a valid permit in violation of the Montana Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act.
Under the 1975 statute, any private individual or entity proposing work in or near a stream that “physically alters or modifies the bed or immediate banks of a perennial-flowing stream” must first obtain an approved permit from the local conservation district. Although this case is unique given the project’s location inside a national park, case law appears to support the Flathead Conservation District’s jurisdictional authority.
During a public hearing on March 13, the Flathead Conservation District Board of Supervisors reviewed and discussed 17 complaints brought by West Glacier residents against John and Stacy Ambler, the owners of a private parcel of land situated within the boundary of Glacier National Park on Lower McDonald Creek, near Apgar Village. Last month, on Feb. 27, the slew of complaints prompted a field investigation by members of the Flathead Conservation District’s Board of Supervisors and a representative of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In addition to finding that a house was indeed under construction, the onsite inspection revealed that the McDonald Creek streambank had been excavated to create a pad for the home’s construction.
In a unanimous vote at the March 13 hearing, the seven-member board ordered that the structure be removed by Nov. 1 and that the streambank be restored and revegetated. The work must occur after high water, according to a letter to the Amblers from Flathead Conservation District Board Supervisor Roger Marsonette, and a “310 Permit” must be obtained prior to beginning both the demolition work and the streambank restoration.
A 310 Permit is named after the Montana Senate bill that led to the creation of the Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act of 1975, commonly referred to as the 310 Law. The law holds that natural rivers and streams, and the lands and property immediately adjacent to them within the Flathead Conservation District are to be “protected and preserved to be available in their natural or existing state, and to prohibit unauthorized projects, and in so doing to keep soil erosion and sedimentation to a minimum, except as may be necessary and appropriate after due consideration of all factors involved.”
John and Stacy Ambler, of San Diego, Calif., say they purchased the parcel in 2019 but have been visiting Glacier National Park for more than four decades, spending summers at a family cabin located at Kelly’s Camp on Lake McDonald, an historic district where a number of private holdings pre-date the park’s creation.
“My family has been coming here since the 1940s and were finally able to buy a cabin in 1964 (still in the family),” according to a letter to the Flathead Conservation District Board of Supervisors signed by the Amblers. “We understand the majesty and history of Glacier National Park and we respect this special place.”
In the letter, Amblers said he purchased the lot on Lower McDonald Creek in 2019 and “spent numerous hours both researching the history of our parcel and trying to figure out which permits we would need in order to proceed with our build.”
“We spoke to several people at multiple departments in Flathead County and were always told the same thing: The County has no jurisdiction on private land in Glacier National Park,” the letter states. “In May 2022 we were able to hook into the sewer and water in Apgar through Glacier. We had numerous conversations with the Park about permits that they might require and there were none. This build has been completely visible to the Park and we’ve kept them in the loop as to our plans. We have adhered to all their guidelines. In no way was it a ‘fast build’ that has not been properly planned, as some have surmised.”
“Upon receiving the initial complaint, we decided to fly in right away to address the problem,” the letter continues. “We would have applied for the 310 permit two years ago had we known we needed it. Unfortunately, we were never steered to your department.”
A 2019 email from a representative of the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Office to Stacy Ambler appears to confirm this version of events, stating that “we do not regulate the use of the land (or any un-zoned property).”
“Essentially, you can do what you want with the land without restriction,” according to the email obtained by the Beacon. “There are no setback or height requirements, no minimum lot size, etc. The county does not have a building department, either, so no permits would be needed there.”
Neither the Amblers nor their legal representation, Trent Baker, of Datsopoulos, MacDonald & Lind, a Missoula-based law firm, responded to the Beacon’s phone calls and emails requesting comment on the Board’s decision prior to the deadline for this article.
The initial complaint was filed by West Glacier resident Carole Murphy and her husband. Murphy said she was shocked to see the three-level home under construction on the banks of Lower McDonald Creek. The project is visible from Camas Road.
“We love that creek,” Murphy told the Beacon. “We kayak it every year and my husband and I fish trash out of it. We made the complaint because we saw a lot of potential for a lot of damage to the stream, so we wanted to draw attention to it.”
Murphy suggested that, given the complex jurisdictional boundaries in Flathead County — and especially inside the park — a measure of accountability should be shared by builders and realtors.
“You have a situation here where a couple has clearly spent a lot of money,” she said.
According to the Amblers’ letter, some of the complaints include false information about the home requiring a septic system. The property has been served by sewer and water available in Apgar since May 2022, the letter states.
“We knew this build may not please everyone as we understand change is not always welcome, but we do things the right way contrary to these false accusations,” the Amblers’ letter states.
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