POLSON — A Lake County right-of-way dispute has reached federal court.
Both Lake County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes maintain that they have jurisdiction over a dirt road leading into Lori Lundeen’s 40-acre property in Big Arm. Lundeen had felt confident enough that it was a county right-of-way to break ground on a new development, Wild Horse RV Resort.
But earlier this month, tribal employees gated off the road that Lundeen and her contractor were using to access the site. Then, on Tuesday, the Flathead Tribal Police served her and the Lake County Commissioners with a lawsuit.
“This is a disagreement we're trying to settle over ownership of the underlying land in question and ultimately, who has regulatory authority,” tribal spokesperson Rob McDonald wrote in an email.
The tribes’ complaint, filed last week in federal court in Missoula, claims that the roads in question sit on trust land.
While Big Arm’s lots have been sold and changed hands over the years, the attorneys argued, its roads and alleys have remained in trust, held for the tribes by the federal government.
They further contended that under a 1915 law, Montana counties must complete a six-step process to dedicate public access routes on Indian reservations. But “no rights-of-way were recorded under the authority of this Act within the (Big Arm) town site.”
Tribal Chairman Ron Trahan raised similar points months ago, in an August letter to the county commissioners. He invited them to a Tribal Council meeting to make their case for authority over the road, and voiced hope that they could resolve the issue “in an amicable manner.”
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But that meeting never happened. Now, the tribes ask the court to rule in their favor, seeking a determination quieting title to the Big Arm town site’s roads, alleys and parks. They also want both Lundeen and the county to be enjoined from trespassing on or regulating Indian trust land. They also seek a preliminary injunction barring development and use of the roads while the case proceeds.
Without such an injunction in place yet, the county is continuing to regulate the project’s access plans. Previously, these had called for entry via the planned-but-not-built F Street. On Tuesday, the commissioners amended the plans to move access north to E Street — the same dirt road that Lundeen and her contractor had already used, and that was gated two weeks ago.
This would shorten the distance that motorists travel from U.S. 93 before entering the property, and the County Planning Department’s memo noted that it would reduce impact to the town site.
CSKT’s McDonald declined to comment on this latest amendment. But he did say that the tribes remain open to resolving this dispute out of court, and that if the tribes’ lawsuit succeeds, Lundeen would still have the option of seeking a tribal right-of-way to the development.
Lake County attorney Wally Congdon expects a response to be filed within the next three weeks. In the meantime, Lundeen told the Missoulian that the work has been paused, and that she’s considering acquiring 20 more acres that would allow access via the south side, rather than the litigated route on the east side.
Lundeen had aimed to complete the project’s first phase by July. Now, she’s looking at a tentative completion date of next spring — and the unpleasant task of informing her customers that they have a longer wait than they bargained for.
“I have told them that the project’s on hold because of a road access issue,” she said.