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Bigfork bridge owner sues county for 'taking'

by LYNNETTE HINTZE
Daily Inter Lake | July 30, 2021 12:00 AM

In the latest legal chapter of the embattled "bridge to nowhere" that connects the north shore of Flathead Lake to Dockstader Island, the property owner who built the bridge is now suing Flathead County for inverse condemnation.

Jolene Dugan, who owns the lakeshore property and built the bridge that is 16 feet wide and more than 500 feet long, is asking for a jury trial and financial compensation from the county for the "taking" of the bridge, according to a complaint filed July 22 in Flathead County District Court.

The bridge has been embroiled in controversy for years. The Flathead County commissioners issued a permit for the bridge in 2011, at the request of Dugan and her father, Roger Sortino, to provide access to private land. Dugan's property consists of a peninsula-shaped parcel on the lakeshore.

When the lake water is at its highest point for a few months each year, the end of the peninsula becomes an island, according to Dugan's complaint. She sought to build the bridge on her property to "connect the intermittent island to the mainland."

THE BRIDGE was completed in 2016 following a string of permit extensions and project amendments. That prompted a citizens group called Community Association for North Shore Conservation to form and sue Flathead County and the commissioners, alleging the permit was unlawfully issued.

In July 2019, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a Flathead County District Court ruling that determined the bridge is illegal and the commissioners erred when granting a permit.

District Judge Robert Allison handed down an order in December 2020, instructing the citizens group to recruit an engineer to oversee the demolition process. The engineer was to present a plan to the judge, and Dugan would bear the cost of demolition.

Allison rejected a demolition plan submitted by Dugan, Sortino and a consulting hydrogeologist.

The court had asked for a "concrete" plan for how to pay for the bridge removal, and Dugan was required to submit that plan by July 1.

Don Murray, the Kalispell attorney representing the Community Association for North Shore Conservation, said Dugan's attorney made a response on July 1 that didn't adequately address the matter.

"We didn't get a payment plan," Murray told the Daily Inter Lake. "We got more excuses."

In his July 15 response to the court regarding the payment plan, Murray wrote, "What Ms. Dugan, the intervenor and her agent father, Roger Sortino, have submitted is similar to what they have offered in the past: a vague plan with a promise that a more definite plan will be offered at a later date.

"While this is consistent with the intervenor's dilatory approach to the matter, it is not in compliance with the court's order. It is more avoidance and delay."

THE COMMUNITY Association for North Shore Conservation is asking the court to deem the most recent "plan" insufficient and order the property sold. The group suggests a forced sale of real property, a process that would give Dugan and Sortino an additional four months to come up with the money for the bridge demolition.

The father-daughter duo have detailed their financial woes in affidavits submitted to the court. Dugan said the cost of constructing the bridge was more than $800,000 and that there is a balance owed 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.

In one affidavit, Dugan said she has given her father full power of attorney to act on her behalf in the case "because my physical difficulties and limitations make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for me to travel to Montana for hearings."

Sortino claimed in his affidavit he lost his entire $4.5 million retirement fund due to the pandemic.

In her lawsuit against the county, Dugan asserts that because the permit was issued in error, "it resulted in the bridge being removed by force of law, divesting Dugan of her property constructed pursuant to the county's permit, and proximately causing a taking of or damage to her property."

The complaint further points out the county has not instituted a condemnation action with regard to Dugan's property "and does not intend in future to do so." The county also has not compensated Dugan for the taking, the complaint states.

News editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 406-758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com