Lake County made the case for its authority over Big Arm’s roadways in a new set of legal filings this week in a dispute that's delayed a $1 million construction project.
The county and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes each maintain that they have jurisdiction over the roadways leading from U.S. 93 to Wild Horse R.V. Resort on the west side of Flathead Lake. Last month, the tribes gated off the road that property owner Lori Lundeen and her contractors were using to access the site; the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent her contractor a formal notice of trespass. Then, the tribes sued both Lundeen and Lake County in federal court.
In the May 24 complaint, the tribes alleged that the Big Arm townsite’s roads were held in trust for the tribes by the federal government, and that Lake County must complete a six-step process to establish those roads as county rights of way.
The county’s response, filed Monday, denied or disputed nearly all of the tribes’ claims, arguing that “CSKT has no ownership or right to administer roads, alleys, and public reserves within the Big Arm Townsite.” Lake County’s attorneys — deputy civil county attorney Wally Congdon and lawyers with New Mexico-based Modrall Sperling Law Firm — further argued that, even assuming that the roads were trust land, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ treaties with the federal government would still require them to allow access.
The tribes had asked the court to find the roads to be in trust for them, and to grant a preliminary injunction blocking construction work while the case is pending. Now, the county wants the court to find that they have jurisdiction over the roads and grant an injunction preventing the tribes from obstructing access.
This legal wrangling has paused the $1 million initial phase of Wild Horse R.V. Resort, which was supposed to be ready by July. “Ms. Lundeen’s private property can only be accessed through the blocked gate on E street,” her attorneys, J.R. Casillas and Jenna P. Lyons with Datsopoulos, MacDonald & Lind, contend. In a separate declaration, she stated that creating an alternate access route would require purchasing 20 acres and additional permitting and engineering work — posing a “tremendous financial hardship.”
“Because of the locked gate on E Street, Ms. Lundeen’s development plans cannot continue at this time,” her attorneys wrote. “...Ms. Lundeen is losing money on this project as of the drafting of this document.”
The two sides each claim the other is to blame for her losses. Lundeen has maintained that she never would have begun construction if she didn’t feel confident that she had legal access. Her and the county’s attorneys describe the gate installation as a “depredation” for which the tribes are responsible.
But in a May 29 supporting brief, several tribal attorneys argued that “in the event Defendants raise a claim of financial or other harms, the harm is of their own making. Defendants were aware of the Tribes’ property claims during the County’s subdivision approval process, and Defendant Lundeen initiated construction and offered lots for sale on a site where legal access was uncertain.”
As this lawsuit continues, Lake County is making its case through other channels. Congdon said that he had also written to President Donald Trump about the situation, noting that the 1855 Blackfoot treaty, to which the Flathead Nation is a signatory, states that the federal government may compensate residents for tribal depredations if they are proven "to the satisfaction of the President."