Judge demands speedy demolition of Flathead Lake's 'bridge to nowhere'

Daily Inter Lake | December 16, 2020 2:00 AM

A court-appointed engineer will oversee the demolition of a private "bridge to nowhere" that connects Dockstader Island to the north shore of Flathead Lake, more than four years after a judge first declared the structure illegal under Montana's Lakeshore Protection Act.

In a blistering order handed down Monday, Flathead County District Judge Robert Allison called the bridge a "foolhardy boondoggle," made clear his frustration with repeated delays in executing the demolition and expressed no sympathy for the bridge's architects – Jolene Dugan and her father, Roger Sortino, who owns the lakeshore property.

Allison instructed the plaintiffs – a group of locals who banded together as the Community Association for North Shore Conservation – to recruit an engineer to serve as a special master overseeing the demolition process. That engineer will present a plan to Allison; Dugan will remain on the hook for the cost of the demolition.

Allison also rejected a demolition plan submitted by Dugan, Sortino and a consulting hydrogeologist, Randall Overton, writing that it "seems to involve an absurd level of complexity." The plan, which the judge ordered in March, would require at least a half-dozen permits and involve the construction of two elevated roads constituting a "two-part causeway," which would be used to transport pieces of the bridge to the shore, but does not specify how the causeway would be removed along with the bridge.

"Perhaps the court should have been more specific, but it had in mind an engineer who

could produce a detailed deconstruction plan, like a construction engineer," Allison wrote.

"The court tasked Dugan with the responsibility of producing a plan for the removal. What Dugan produced is inadequate and questionable," he wrote. "Dugan is no longer entitled to the benefit of the doubt that genuine obstacles prevent progress and that she is acting in good faith to accomplish removal of the bridge. Dugan now loses the ability to guide, control or give input on the process of how to remove the bridge. The time has come for the court to take the reins from Dugan."

Allison also critiqued Overton's assertion that the demolition would require approval from Flathead County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the state Department of Environmental Quality, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"Had Dugan been one-half that careful when building the bridge, this presumably staggeringly expensive lawsuit, the appeal and the attendant, ongoing and continuing aftermath, with all of its undoubtedly burdensome costs both in terms of money and anxiety, could have been avoided," Allison wrote.

The Community Association for North Shore Conservation sued after the bridge was completed in 2016. In July 2019, the Montana Supreme Court upheld Allison's determination that the roughly 500-foot-long span is illegal and the Flathead County commissioners erred when granting a permit for the project in 2011.

County zoning regulations are clear that no roads may be built in the lakeshore protection zone. The 2011 commissioners permitted the bridge to Dockstader Island on grounds that it's not technically a "road," reasoning that Allison called "nonsensical." The island used to be part of a peninsula that eroded over decades as the Séliš Ksanka Ql’ispé Dam, formerly the Kerr Dam, kept water levels artificially high into the fall.

Dugan and Sortino, who is acting on her behalf on the bridge matter, both blamed delays in executing the demolition on personal financial difficulties. Sortino told the judge he lost his entire $4.5 million retirement fund and is working to sell a parcel of land adjacent to the bridge. Dugan reported she has severe health problems and was hospitalized and nearly died after a gas leak incident; she said she has three children and no job and lives in rental housing, and her only asset is a 19-year-old SUV.

None of that swayed Allison.

"Dugan and Sortino had the money to build the bridge and for some unfathomable reason determined that a foolhardy boondoggle, a vehicular bridge to nowhere located where no roads are permitted, was a good way to spend that money, let alone begging the question how a woman with three children, health issues, no job and living in a rental could afford same," Allison wrote. "This is the consequence."

Don Murray, the conservation group's attorney, said he intends to find an engineer "as expeditiously as possible" with an eye toward starting the demolition in late winter, when water levels recede and the lakebed beneath the bridge is exposed. That, he said, might allow for a simple dismantling of the bridge rather than a more complicated process like the one Overton proposed.

"I assume that an engineer would propose removing it in reverse order from how it was put in," Murray said Thursday.

He predicted Flathead County officials would be eager to grant a permit for the demolition to bring an end to the bridge saga.

"I think they'll work with us to get it approved as quickly as possible," he said.

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com