The recent installation of a gate across a gravel road that has been used by the public for several decades has residents in the Star Meadows area unhappy.
The byway in question is Evers Creek Connection Road northwest of Whitefish. The section of road in dispute is on private property between two chunks of Stillwater State Forest land.
According to county records, the owner of the property is Brent Woodard. He owns more than 100 acres with parcels on both sides of the road.
Recently, two gates were installed on the road, less than one quarter of a mile apart. Wednesday, both gates were open. In prior days, the gates were closed, but not locked.
The angst over the section of road possibly being closed deals largely with concerns over a fire in the area and how the Olney Fire Department would respond. The road provides a shorter route for the department to reach the area.
“It’s the only connection from the Olney Fire Department to here,” resident Josh Haynes said. “It is access to Good Creek Road and it’s popular for hunters, too.”
Haynes also said it’s the quickest way to get to the voting location for that area and the grocery store in Olney.
“It brings small communities together, and it’s just not being very neighborly,” he added.
Another area resident, Mike Coleman, said Woodard told him that if there is a disaster, he’ll unlock the gate.
“He said he couldn’t afford the liability to have people driving across his property,” Coleman said.
Coleman also said he had documents from the county that indicated there was an easement for the section of the road in question and that the warranty of deed that Woodard received from the property seller indicated this.
Woodard didn’t respond to requests for comment from the Daily Inter Lake.
Part of the confusion surrounding the closure was that some landowners believed the road was owned and maintained by the Forest Service, while others were under the impression it was a Flathead County road.
According to David Prunty, the county Public Works director, only the first half-mile of the road belongs to the county.
“After research in the plat room, that’s what we determined,” Prunty said. “We don’t believe it’s our road.
“It’s a rare dispute. It comes up every and now then. I’ve never had to physically remove a barrier. Usually cooler heads prevail.”
The Forest Service hasn’t told landowners anything and didn’t reply to requests from the Inter Lake for comment.
Haynes did speak with a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife law enforcement officer about the matter, who told him the road was originally built by a logging company to haul timber.
But with no entity claiming ownership of the road, Haynes said the residents in the area may seek a prescriptive easement for the road, which generally means someone who doesn’t own land or a road has an interest in using it.
“We’ve spoken with a lawyer in Whitefish who is considering taking this on,” Haynes said. “From my understanding, there is no formal easement for the property, so we may need to do something there.”
In 1995, Kathleen Givan bought 20 acres in the area, farther up from where the gate is located. She bought more land in 2004 and has lived there since.
“To us, it’s a safety issue. That road has been in common use for 40 years. It’s the only way the Olney Fire Department can get here,” Givan said. “I care that he closed what amounts to a public road.
“Someone told me that people here do what they want until someone tells them they can’t.”
Ultimately, the residents who live in Star Meadows hope the road isn’t shut down by a pair of locked gates
“I’d like to think he’ll just keep the road open,” Coleman said.
There will be a community meeting regarding the closure at 6 p.m. Friday at the Stillwater Bar.
Reporter Scott Shindledecker can be reached at (406) 758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.