Disputes Over Bridge Expansions in Madison County

Fencing and barbed wire at the Duncan District Road bridge outside of Sheridan makes access to the Ruby River difficult.

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The Public Land/Water Access Association is asking the state attorney general to join a stream-access case after Madison County apparently ignored the instructions of the Montana Supreme Court.

After the Montana Supreme Court ruled against a Madison County landowner in favor of historically established easements and Montana's stream-access laws this January, it sent the case back to the Madison County District Court to establish the width of the county's right of way on Seyler Lane.

Fishermen have long used the Seyler Lane bridge to access the Ruby River. But when millionaire James Cox Kennedy bought the property along the Ruby River more than a decade ago, he closed the bridges and denied fishermen access to the river.

PLWA sued Kennedy in 2004 and finally prevailed in the Montana Supreme Court after a decade of litigation. Madison County was also involved.

Seyler Lane crosses Kennedy's property, but the Supreme Court ruled that Madison County and the public have an easement to use the road and the bridge based on historic use, including recreational use.

Easements usually include rights of way that extend beyond the road surface to allow for maintenance.

The standard width of a car lane is about 10 feet so public-road easements are about 60 feet, leaving 20 feet of right of way on either side of a two-lane road.

Some easements can designate different widths, but the Seyler Lane width was never defined.

The Montana Supreme Court gave instructions that the width be whatever is “reasonably necessary and convenient” to maintain the public road and bridge.

But in recent hearings with Madison County District Judge Loren Tucker, PLWA learned that Madison County was claiming it needs little or no room on either side of the road for maintenance.

No extra room means fishermen can't get down to the high-water mark of the Ruby River without trespassing, so Madison County is effectively denying fishermen access to the river.

Madison County Commissioner Dan Happel said the county doesn't need extra room to maintain the bridge. He said environmental regulations would probably prohibit the county from going into the streambed or riparian area to work.

“In all likelihood, if we were to replace the bridge, we'd do the work from the roadway,” Happel said. “We'd probably replace it with a precast concrete structure and set up a crane on the roadbed.”

If the county prevails with its minimal easement and then needs more room to do work, Happel said the county would ask permission from the landowner. But sometimes landowners don't grant permission.

“We have that problem right now on different roadways. When that happens, we just deal with it as we need to,” Happel said.

Happel denied that the commissioners were either cooperating with or being pressured by Kennedy.

But PLWA President John Gibson said such a limited easement wasn't reasonable.

“How can they claim they can create a safe and convenient public road with something like a 20-feet easement? You're lucky to pass two cars, let alone if someone has a breakdown,” Gibson said.

PLWA attorney J. Devlan Geddes argued that the commissioners are not acting in the public's interest, which is why he sent a letter to the attorney general's office on Thursday, asking the state to join in.

Madison County has a responsibility to maintain the roads, but ultimately, roads are the state's responsibility, according to a recent Meagher County ruling.

“We're asking the attorney general to step in and enforce state law. The commissioners want to say ‘we're the monarchs of this county.' But they're not. Not when the state has the ultimate responsibility,” Gibson said.

If the easement width isn't “reasonably necessary and convenient,” PLWA would appeal again to the Supreme Court, Gibson said.

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Laura Lundquist can be reached at llundquist@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-1234.

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