A local tradition

It was business as usual Tuesday afternoon at the Corral Bar and Steakhouse as co-owner Devon White was busy serving drinks. That could change as early as June 15 if a neighboring landowner follows through on his threat to dig up the popular eatery's water and septic system, based on an ongoing lawsuit.

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An out-of-state developer is forcing the Corral Bar, Steakhouse and Motel, an anchor for the Gallatin Canyon community since 1946, out of business over a property dispute.

The bar's owners must remove its septic and well system, which are on 1.8 acres owned by Larry Burcalow. The Wisconsin resident bought the land in 1999 and previously had an agreement to let the bar use the land between 2004 and 2009.

Burcalow sued bar owners Dave House and Devon White in 2010 for trespass. The suit and ensuing appeals reached the Montana Supreme Court last year, where the justices ruled in Burcalow's favor. Now the developer is demanding House and White remove the septic field and well by June 15 — effectively shutting down the bar and leaving them without a functioning business to sell.

Burcalow did not respond to multiple requests for comment Thursday and could not be reached at the business he owns, Yahara Materials, a quarry operator in Waunakee, Wisconsin.

“To have them forced to close from a developer coming in, who did a land swap, who knew their septic field is there is sickening,” said Martha Johnson, broker-owner of Montana Living Big Sky Real Estate and who waitressed at the Corral in 1988. “We just can't let it happen.”

Outfoxed and boxed out

Burcalow acquired the property in 1999 after he purchased several hundred acres from the Big Sky Lumber Co., which itself had acquired the land in a trade with the U.S. Forest Service.

Burcalow testified at trial that he told White prior to buying the land that if he did purchase the property “he would ‘make it right' with the Corral,” according to the Montana Supreme Court ruling.

On Aug. 1, 2004, the Corral and Burcalow entered a licensing agreement. It allowed the bar to rent the 1.8 acres for five years.

In 2010, Burcalow sued the bar for trespass, while the Corral owners argued that the bar's continuous use of the property since the 1940s gave them a prescriptive easement — the right to use another person's property without permission. In Montana, a prescriptive easement is granted after a period of five years.

The District Court ruled that the licensing agreement was invalid and granted the Corral the prescriptive easement. But the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling in November. Justices decided the agreement gave the Corral permission to use the land for a span 22 days shy of what would have been five years since the Forest Service transferred the property to private hands.

“We've been in business over 26 years,” White said. “And (Burcalow's) going to put us out of business over two and a half acres that my sewer and water's been on for over 25 years.”

House and White bought the Corral in 1988 after working construction in the area. The previous owners wanted local folks to take over the bar and restaurant and cut the two a deal “because neither one of us had any money,” White said.

He said Burcalow offered to sell the 1.8 acres for $400,000, nearly seven times the property's appraised value, according to White.

“In my world, $400,000 is not an easy thing to come up with,” White said.

Other than continuing to operate until June 15, White said he and House don't have any definite plans for the Corral. Without water and sewer, the business isn't worth anything, he said. And after an unrelated boundary realignment they negotiated with Burcalow several years ago, they don't have room to move the sewer and water onto the half-acre the Corral currently sits on.

“He's got us boxed in. We own what the building sat on and that's it,” White explained.

A relic of ‘authentic Montana'

The potential shuttering of a 68-year-old business has prompted some in the Gallatin Canyon and Big Sky communities to act.

Residents started a Facebook page called “Friends of the Corral in Big Sky” that drew more than 600 likes in several hours.

Big Sky resident Barbara Rowley, who confessed that as a vegetarian and light drinker she doesn't go to the Corral often, expressed her support because of the Corral's involvement in the community.

Rowley was secretary of the nonprofit Friends of Big Sky Education, which worked to garner support for building a Big Sky high school. When the Legislature passed the bill allowing Big Sky to build what became Lone Peak High, Rowley said the Corral responded by firing up its grills and serving hamburgers to those celebrating the announcement.

“They're a huge community supporter. They're a bedrock of the town. One of my first dates with my husband was at the Corral,” Rowley said.

Beyond the community involvement, the bar is a piece of “authentic Montana,” said Johnson of Montana Living Big Sky Real Estate. The Philadelphia native first came to Big Sky in the late 1980s to work a summer job at a dude ranch. The Corral was where her crew and the crews from surrounding ranches would gather.

“When you walk in you will truly see a real cowboy, a real sheepherder, because they keep all their cows and sheep in the Forest Service (areas). And then you might have the owner of the Yellowstone Club or Big Sky Resort,” Johnson said. “It's such a great melting pot and gives people a taste of the authentic West. It's not kitschy. It's not fake.”

Johnson said the House and White families kept the stakes of their legal battle with Burcalow relatively quiet.

Johnson said the community is looking to pool resources to try and “appeal to Mr. Burcalow's compassionate side and ask him to come back to the table.”

“It's not too late for us to help,” Johnson said. “They're my friends, my children's friends and… I'm here for them, as is this community.”

Jason Bacaj may be reached at jasonb@dailychronicle.com or 582-2635.

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