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Dismantling of Bigfork’s ‘bridge to nowhere’ underway

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | March 5, 2023 12:00 AM

After seven years of legal battles, Bigfork’s ‘bridge to nowhere’ is coming undone.

Construction crews could be seen Friday morning taking apart the bridge over top of a frozen shoreline. A sign warned those who frequently walk along the north shore to steer clear of the construction zone.

Litigation over the controversial bridge on Flathead Lake began when a resident group, Community Association for North Shore Conservation, sued the county for wrongfully issuing a permit to Flathead Properties intervenor Roger Sortino.

The association filed the ultimately successful lawsuit soon after the bridge, which links Dockstader Island to the shoreline, went up in 2016. Their legal strategy centered on the permit issued by Flathead County allowing the structure to go up despite Montana's Lakeshore Protection Act.

Association Co-Chair Dave Hadden said Friday that he’s grateful Montana has that act to protect its lakes.

“Flathead Lake is like the crown jewel and the north shore is a wildlife refuge, in large part, so it’s important to protect that natural resource,” Hadden said. “It took eight years of effort, it was expensive, but it was really worth it. We are really thankful to the community of Bigfork and the broader Flathead Valley that supported the effort very strongly.”

Sortino’s daughter Jolene Dugan had the bridge built on her property to provide access to Dockstader Island. She sued Flathead County in 2021 for inverse condemnation after a judge ordered the structure’s removal the year prior, according to past Daily Inter Lake coverage. Dugan died in September of that year, deeding the land to Sortino.

After a lengthy legal process, Flathead County District Judge Robert Allison ordered Sortino to pay $300,000 for the removal of the bridge in March 2022. The deposit was made on July 13 of that year, exceeding the order’s 30 day deadline.

In March 2022, Allison ordered the association to secure 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.

Hadden credited much of the progress on the bridge’s removal to Stelling’s efforts.

“He has been the grease on the skids … He got all the parties working together and I think that was a big difference in getting this resolved,” Hadden said.

There is no estimate on when the removal of the bridge will be completed, but crews were making sizable progress Friday morning.

“It’s just a small example of how people who are committed to protecting the values in the valley can make a difference,” Hadden said.

Bigfork Eagle Editor Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing tinman@dailyinterlake.com.