Friday, August 12, 2022

Bigfork's 'bridge to nowhere' coming down

Bigfork Eagle | August 3, 2022 12:00 AM

Bigfork’s ‘bridge to nowhere’ is slated to come down this winter after years of legal battles.

The bridge has been embroiled in controversy for years, starting in 2016 when a resident group, the Community Association for North Shore Conservation (CANSC), successfully sued Flathead County for wrongfully issuing a permit to Flathead County and Washington state-based Flathead Properties intervenor Roger Sortino. Thus began an arduous legal battle between Sortino, his daughter Jolene Dugan, Flathead County and CANSC.

Dugan and Sortino had the bridge built on her property to connect Dockstader Island to the shoreline. She sued Flathead County last year for inverse condemnation after a judge ordered the structure’s removal in 2020, according to a 2021 July article from the Daily Inter Lake. Dugan died in September of that year.

This past March, the court ordered Sortino pony up the $300,000 necessary to begin the removal process. He was ordered by District Judge Robert Allison to pay the amount, who wrote in his order: “The court has come to the realization that the tail is wagging the dog.”

“The intervenor had the opportunity to determine the means and method of removal of the bridge but failed to comply with the court’s order,” he wrote.

Sortino’s deposit far exceeds the 30 day time limit issued in Allison’s order. A notice of deposit was filed with the Flathead County District Court on July 13. But it’s still the first concrete step in the removal of the bridge, which according to a release from CANSC, will be torn down over the winter months.

“It has been a truly protracted effort to secure these essential funds,” CANSC attorney Don Murray said.

CANSC filed a lawsuit against the county and its commissioners soon after the bridge was completed in 2016. Their legal strategy centered on the permit allowing the structure despite Montana's Lakeshore Protection Act. The district court held in September 2016 that the county-issued permit ultimately proved invalid, according to court records. The court then ordered the structure removed and the area restored to pre-existing wetland conditions, according to the court records.

In July 2019, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision.

In Dugan’s lawsuit against Flathead County, filed last year, she and Sortino detailed their financial woes in affidavits submitted to the court. Dugan said the cost of building the bridge was more than $800,000. She owed a balance of about $560,000 on the loan she took out to fund construction.

"I did not have the money to pay for the bridge construction and I do not have the money it will take to remove it," she stated.

Dugan died last September, deeding the lakefront parcels to Sortino, who lives out of state.

CANSC was ordered by Allison to secure the service of a qualified engineering firm to undertake the design and management of the bridge removal process. The court affirmed Great West Engineering of Great Falls and appointed engineer Mitch Stelling as special master to the Court. A “special master” is a subordinate position appointed by the court to ensure judicial orders are followed.

Great West is set to provide the court with a demolition plan, which once approved by the court will go to the county for approval. CANSC said once all permits are in hand, actual deconstruction can begin.