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Bigfork bridge owners ordered to submit demolition payment plan

by MACKENZIE REISS
Daily Inter Lake | June 10, 2021 12:00 AM

The property owner who constructed a bridge to Dockstader Island that has since been deemed illegal was ordered to submit a payment plan for the demolition of the bridge by July 1 or the property will be sold.

The private “bridge to nowhere” connects the north shore of Flathead Lake to Dockstader Island and was permitted by the Flathead County commissioners in 2011. However, a group of concerned citizens founded the Community Association for North Shore Conservation and sued the property owners after the bridge was completed in 2016, arguing the bridge violated Montana’s Lakeshore Protection Act and should not have been permitted in the first place. Flathead District Court Judge Robert Allison found in favor of the plaintiffs, a ruling that was upheld by the Montana Supreme Court in 2019.

In late 2020, Judge Allison rejected a plan for demolishing the bridge that was submitted by Jolene Dugan, Roger Sortino and a consulting hydrogeologist, Randall Overton. The plan involved constructing two additional causeways to facilitate the demolition of the bridge. Allison wrote that the plan “seems to involve an absurd level of complexity” and instead instructed members of the Community Association for North Shore Conservation to select an engineer to serve as a special master and oversee the demolition process.

“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 wrote following the December 2020 hearing.

Dugan and Sortino cited financial difficulties as the reason behind the delay in the bridge removal process. Dugan reported she suffered severe health problems and lived in rental housing with her only asset being a 19-year-old SUV, while Sortino told the court that he had lost his $4.5 million retirement and was working on selling a piece of land adjacent to the bridge.

In an April 27 status hearing, the conservation group’s attorney, Don Murray, reported that his clients selected Great Falls engineer Mitch Stelling as grand master for the project. Stelling also was authorized to do core drilling on the bridge.

Flathead County Planning Director Mark Mussman said the drilling will help the engineer get some idea of how the bridge is constructed.

Mussman anticipates the demolition could begin as soon as lake water levels recede — either during the winter or spring of next year — barring any further litigation.

“There’s more of a target date now than there ever has been,” Mussman said.

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