CSKT files right-of-way lawsuit against county, property owner
BIG ARM — A federal court will determine whether the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes or Lake County have authority over an undeveloped road in Big Arm.
“This is a disagreement we’re trying to settle over ownership of the underlying land in question and ultimately, who has regulatory authority,” CSKT Communications Director Rob McDonald said in an email.
The dispute is over access to Wild Horse RV Resort Subdivision, which is currently under construction. This spring construction crews began using E Street in Big Arm to transport heavy equipment. The road is an undeveloped route the tribes claim is on trust land. According to the lawsuit, CSKT made repeated requests to the county for documentation of the county’s authority over the road. When the tribe received no response, CSKT Tribal Council approved the installation of a gate across the road to prevent use by those unauthorized by the tribes. The gate was put in place on May 13.
CSKT filed the lawsuit on May 24, in which they claim that Lake County does not have authority to approve public use of E Street, as it is located on federal trust land. It is requested that the court award regulatory authority over the road in question to CSKT and that Lake County officials and the landowner, Lori Lundeen, be prohibited from trespassing on the road.
Lundeen said the lawsuit comes as a surprise. When the county approved the subdivision she was told that the county attorney, Wally Congdon, had spent over 1,000 hours ensuring that they were able to grant access to the property. “I wouldn’t have moved forward [with construction] if I didn’t have a guarantee,” Lundeen said. She said she was not aware that CSKT had tried to contact the county for further information about the county’s authority over the road.
According to Lundeen, the lawsuit has derailed the timeline of her subdivision project. Construction crews have left for other jobs, and she likely won’t be able to get them back until next spring. She said she’s already spent $350,000 on construction and land for the project.
Lundeen said when construction is finished she’ll sell each of the 60 lots for $95,000, and rent them until they sell. The lots were listed for sale a few months ago, but Lundeen said she’s had to turn interested people away now that construction is halted. “We were three weeks into construction when the tribe came in and put the gate up without notice or paperwork,” Lundeen said. “We were held hostage.” Work on the project is on pause until the case is decided.
According to documents filed in the suit, all parks, alleys, and roads within the Big Arm town site are held in federal trust for CSKT and authority over them remained with the tribe when the town of Big Arm was platted. The lawsuit sites a 6-step process required to designate public access routes on any Montana Indian Reservation. It is argued that this process wasn’t completed in Lake County to allow public use of E Street.
However, Lake County Commissioner Dave Stipe said he and the other county commissioners believe the road has been a dedicated county right of way since Big Arm was originally opened for settlement by the federal government in 1913. “It was dedicated by the federal government at the time that they created the plat,” he said. “Lake County got that portion from Flathead County in 1923 when Lake County was created.”
The complaint cites Lake County has not been responsive to requests for information. CSKT’s representative to the Lake County Planning Board expressed concern over legal access to the site prior to the county’s approval of the subdivision. On Aug. 2, 2018 CSKT wrote a letter to the county requesting that the county provide documents to prove county authority over the road in order to “resolve the issue in an amicable manner.” According to the complaint, the county delivered no response to the request. CSKT requested information about the county’s authority over the roads two other times and received no response.
Stipe said he sees the lawsuit as an opportunity to settle ongoing conflict between the tribes and the county over right-of-way. “We’d like to see a judge rule on it. We feel we have good documentation and a judge will rule in our favor,” he said. McDonald said Lundeen has not made an effort to conform to the process the tribes say is required to gain access to E Street. He said Lundeen and her contractors could access the property using an alternative entry.
Stipe said he expects a federal judge to rule on the case this summer.