A privately built span referred to in recent years as a “bridge to nowhere” on the north shore of Flathead Lake appears to be headed nowhere but down.
On July 2, a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court upheld a 2016 decision by Flathead District Court Judge Robert Allison that found Flathead County had issued an invalid permit to allow the bridge’s construction to a private island near Bigfork.
The bridge to Dockstader Island was built by Jolene Dugan and her developer father, Roger Sortino of Seattle. They proceeded to build the 519-foot bridge even though a local community group had filed a lawsuit to try to stop it.
Allison ruled in September 2016 that the county violated the Lakeshore Protection Act by granting the permit and ordered the bridge’s removal. Dugan appealed. The Montana Supreme Court concurred with Allison’s ruling.
Don Murray, the attorney for the Community Association for North Shore Conservation, the community group that fought the bridge, said the latest court ruling does not include a time-line for demolition or specify who will shoulder related costs.
Richard DeJana, the attorney who has represented Dugan, did not respond to repeated phone calls Tuesday seeking comment about the ruling.
In a news release, Dave Hadden, co-chairman of the Community Association for North Shore Conservation, celebrated the court’s ruling.
“While this has been a very long and expensive effort to maintain and restore the scenic qualities of Flathead Lake’s north shore, we are very gratified by the Montana Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Judge Allison’s decision,” Hadden said. “We look forward to Flathead County moving swiftly to act on the court’s order to have the bridge removed and the lakeshore restored.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Hadden said the best time to remove the bridge would be when the level of Flathead Lake is low, such as in winter or spring.
Like Murray, he said he believes Dugan and Sortino agreed to conditions in a permit amendment from the county that specified they would be liable for demolition costs if the bridge was ordered removed.
Phil Mitchell, chairman of Flathead County commissioners, said it’s too soon to speculate about how the county might proceed in the case. He said DeJana could, on his client’s behalf, file a petition for rehearing with the Montana Supreme Court.
He noted that Dugan had “continued to build, even when there was litigation.”
A September 2016 article in the Daily Inter Lake, written after Allison’s ruling to demolish the bridge, quoted DeJana as estimating Dugan had spent “in excess of half a million dollars” on the bridge.
In 2011, Dugan received a permit from the county to build a 481-foot, 16-foot wide bridge. A later amendment to the permit added length.
Dugan owns a peninsula-shaped parcel on Flathead Lake and when the lake level is high it becomes an island, a reality that motivated her quest to build a bridge.
The Montana Supreme Court decision found that Allison had correctly concluded that the county had failed to consider the bridge’s visual impacts when granting the permit for its construction. And Allison had determined correctly that the bridge is a road or roadway, which are not allowed in the lakeshore protection zone unless they serve boat ramps, the court found.
In a news release, Murray expressed appreciation for the persistence of the Community Association for North Shore Conservation in its opposition to the bridge.
“Protecting our natural wonders like Flathead Lake requires vigilance and dedication, but a day on that lake is a reminder that it’s worth the struggle,” Murray said.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.