A bitter, years-long dispute over lake access was put to rest Tuesday morning, after just 18 minutes of discussion at the Flathead County Commission’s meeting.
Last month, the Daily Inter Lake reported that, after years of controversy over the dirt road that accesses McGregor Lake near Marion, Flathead Wildlife Inc. was suing the county over its failure to protect the right of way from encroachment by landowners.
Those landowners then petitioned the county to reduce the right of way’s width from 60 to 30 feet, while keeping the road itself at 15 feet.
The commissioners approved that petition Tuesday, a solution that’s won acceptance from both sides.
“It gives the landowners more latitude to work within their property, [and] it gives both the county and the public a defined right of way,” said Jim Vashro, president of Flathead Wildlife Inc, in public comments before the vote. “We support this petition.”
The conservation group had taken an interest in the issue in 2005, when retirees Bill and Phyllis Lynch unwittingly built a house over the right of way. The following decade saw a failed attempt to reroute the road, and litigation over the issue.
Vashro credited the second lawsuit, which Flathead Wildlife “reluctantly” filed against Flathead County in August 2016, with spurring the parties to forge a solution outside the courts.
The pact’s popularity was clear Tuesday, when group members, Flathead County employees, elected officials and state officials agreed that narrowing the right of way while keeping the road 15 feet wide would meet the needs of all parties involved.
Also concurring was Kalispell attorney Randall Ogle, whose client Phyllis Lynch owns the home at the heart of the dispute. “To our knowledge there’s not any opposition,” he said.
With the petition approved, the county will survey the road and narrower right of way, placing magnetic surveying pins along its center line and edges. It will also remove a soil bank the Lynches had placed over part of the roadway as part of their yard.
“Once those activities are completed and FWI is satisfied its goal of public access is met, FWI will move to withdraw its lawsuit,” read Vashro’s full statement.
Another group member, Warren Illi, called on the county to also place concrete markers along the tract.
“They need to be installed, otherwise future encumbrances will be a big unknown. We don’t want to be back,” he warned those present. Illi even offered to pay for them himself.
Deputy Civil County Attorney David Randall, who helped craft the compromise, told the Inter Lake that these markers aren’t typically installed along county rights of way. He predicted that the pins would be placed in the spring, once work conditions improve.
To view maps and other documents concerning this solution, visit http://flathead.mt.gov/commissioner/current_minutes.php and select the audio file for the Jan. 9 meeting.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 758-4407.