Bigfork group recommends denial of lakeshore variance

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A request to repair eroding shoreline on Flathead Lake’s north shore by adding gravel fill was deemed “premature” by the Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committee during its Aug. 29 meeting.

Landowner Jolene Dugan submitted a request for a major variance to Flathead County Lake and Lakeshore Protection Regulations for the application of 825 cubic yards of gravel to re-establish a dynamic equilibrium beach on multiple Holt Drive properties. Hydrologist Randy Overton said Dugan has lost approximately 30 feet of shoreline due to erosion and sought to prevent further loss. Dynamic equilibrium beaches are designed to gradually fluctuate as water levels change without resulting in major erosion.

Committee members agreed that rehabilitative efforts are necessary, but recommended her request be denied. Chief among their concerns is the time line of the proposed shoreline work as it relates to the court-ordered removal of a bridge located on the property that was constructed by Dugan and her father, Roger Sortino.

In 2016, the pair built a 519-foot bridge to Dockstader Island, a private island in Flathead Lake. The structure made headlines after a local conservation group sued Flathead County for permitting the bridge. Flathead District Court Judge Robert Allison ruled the county had, in fact, violated the Lakeshore Protection Act by permitting the structure and ordered it be torn down. Dugan appealed the ruling, but in July the Montana Supreme Court upheld Allison’s decision. The ruling does not specify a time line for demolition of the bridge or who will be responsible for the associated costs.

“I just think we have the cart in front of the horse here,” said Bigfork committee member Jerry Sorenson. “I think there are potential impacts from removing the bridge and who knows what restoration will need to happen at that point.”

But Overton countered that the shoreline restoration could transpire whether or not the bridge was intact and considered the issues independent of each other.

“Bridge or no bridge, the shoreline still has to be protected,” Overton said. “This landowner simply wants to fix the beach so it’s stable and left alone.”

Shoreline erosion has become a significant issue on the north shore ever since Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam, formerly known as Kerr Dam, was constructed in 1938, transforming the lake into a reservoir. The higher than normal water levels have resulted in significant erosion of the north shore at a rate of 4 to 6 feet per year.

However, existing regulations limit shoreline protection measures to protect the health of the lake, prompting Dugan’s request. She asked for a variance to five sections of the regulations that limit the application of rock, size of rock, where it can be placed, and the depth and volume of added fill.

“There is a certain amount of fill that can be placed in the lake and it’s not much. According to our regulations it’s very limited, so this is just a variance to that number,” Flathead County Planning and Zoning Director Mark Mussman said.

In addition to a larger quantity of fill than existing regulations allow, Dugan also wants to use larger pieces of gravel — 6-inch minus, as opposed to 3/4- to 2-inch material.

But while the members of the committee agreed the restoration of the beach is the best way to prevent further erosion, they and members of the public in attendance voiced strong concerns about the order of operations, the lack of outside agency feedback on the plan, and how the delivery of material would impact nearby wetlands.

Dave Hadden, co-chairman of the Community Association for North Shore Conservation, the group that sued the county over the bridge, was worried a road would be constructed over existing wetlands to allow delivery of fill material to the shoreline.

“The application doesn’t consider how the material is going to be delivered to the beach across these properties — there is no road,” he said. “It would be totally inappropriate for a road to be placed through these wetlands.”

Committee member Chany Ockert said there were too many unknowns for the committee to recommend the major variance request.

“This is consistent with the recommendations to improve we’ve made in the past,” Ockert said. “There are just so many variables that I’m concerned with recommending this application for approval when we don’t know all the impacts of the lawsuit and the removal of the bridge.”

The committee recommended denial of the permit, but its decision is not final say on the matter. The Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committee was established in 1993 to advise Flathead County on land-use decisions in the Bigfork area and to act as a liaison between the citizens of Bigfork and the county on these matters. While the committee can recommend permits for approval or denial, it doesn’t have regulatory authority.

Next, the major variance request will go before the Flathead County Planning Board, which will also have the opportunity to either recommend approval or denial. Finally, the Flathead County commissioners will review the request, taking into account recommendations from both groups, before making a decision.

The Planning Board will meet at 6 p.m. on Sept. 11 at the Flathead County South Campus, 40 11th St., in the second-floor conference room.

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at (406) 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

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