For now, the controversial gate on the Hughes Creek road will remain closed to the public.
Following a sometimes contentious three-hour meeting, the Ravalli County Commission decided Friday that caution was its best option before determining its next move on the future of the gate that’s blocked the county road for 40 years.
Worried about the potential for conflicts between landowners and members of the public looking to use the road for first time since the locked gate appeared in 1978, the commission opted to give the legal system more time to address the issue.
In an earlier letter to the landowners, the county had set a deadline of Sept. 23, to remove the gate. That letter didn’t set a firm timeline for when the county would act if the landowners chose to not do so.
Landowners have filed a notice of intent to file a second appeal with the Montana Supreme Court to overturn the commission’s decision that the gate needed to be removed. Some Hughes Creek landowners have also met with commissioners individually to ask them to delay acting on the gate’s removal.
Landowners said there is additional evidence, including a new map that shows a different location for the post office building where the original petition said the county road started. They also said that none of their deeds shows an easement across their properties.
The meeting was tinged with accusations the county was biased in making its decision and made it difficult for landowners to obtain documentation that would be helpful to their case.
On Thursday, the two families whose case is currently working its way through the Supreme Court sent the state’s governor and attorney general a written request asking for an investigation into whether the commission had been “unduly influenced or coerced” into taking action against Hughes Creek landowners by state environmental organizations using “dark money” contributions from groups outside of Montana.
The Cox and Bugli families pointed to the commission’s recent decision to ask the governor and attorney general to investigate certain environmental organizations to determine if they receive out-of-state or foreign contributions to engage in advocacy efforts in Montana.
“The hypocrisy in that request is astonishing to us as Hughes Creek landowners and targets of the commissioner’s efforts to satisfy the demands of some of these same types of organizations to deny our private property rights,” a press release read.
L.M. Mikolaichik owns the parcel of land where the gate is located. In a 25-minute-long statement, Mikolaichik accused the commission of holding a kangaroo court and promised a long legal fight if the commission moved forward to have the gate removed.
Mikolaichick said he would back down if the commission wrote a statement promising to never bring up this issue again and offer the landowners a public apology.
Several residents offered support to the commission.
Bob Driggers of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association said behind that gate lie 15 to 25 sections of land that the public has not had access to for years.
“My contention is that’s our public land behind that gate that we’ve been excluded from for several years,” he said. “I strongly urge to you continue with the date of Sept. 23, to remove that gate.”
Nearly all of the commissioners told the standing-room-only crowd that there was no truth in allegations they were biased against the landowners in making their decision.
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In fact, commissioners said, if there was a bias at the meeting on a petition to abandon the county road, it was to keep the gate in place.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said if someone had taken a poll of the commission before that meeting “my sense for this board is that there wasn’t a chance in hell they would vote to open up this road. This board has been a long advocate for private property rights.”
But under the law, if county road can be used to access public lands and there is no other good alternative route, the commission doesn’t have the authority to abandon the road, he said.
“We knew we were going to get sued no matter how we came out on this,” Chilcott said. “We took painstakingly long … to make sure we got the facts presented and made sure we made a decision that was based on those facts that were presented.
“It was a long, grueling painful process for all of us,” he said. “That’s how it came out. It was a fair process. We went through it as fairly as we could.”
Commission Chair Jeff Burrows said claims the issue was predetermined “are patently false. They are just wrong and they are a lie. … When we walked in here, we sincerely thought we were going to say leave the gate alone. Our attorneys advised of the law that we didn’t know was out there.
“We got blindsided by a law,” Burrows said. “This claim that we wanted this …that is politically unfavorable for us to sit up here and do that. We gain nothing by doing this except a whole bunch of flak from people and supporters that ideologically I would say agree with me. For us to do this as an agenda to get re-elected makes zero sense. It flies right in the face of what I’ve campaigned on, but we followed the law.
“What I don’t want is for the next I run for you to come in and say you broke the law and now we’re in a lawsuit and now we’re paying damages for doing wrong,” he said.
The commission set its next meeting on the Hughes Creek gate for Jan. 15.
The hope is by then the Montana Supreme Court will have ruled on the most recent appeal.
Commissioners said they will use the delay to make certain that they are prepared for the public use of the road should the court rule in the county’s favor. They asked the landowners to work with them by providing limited access to county and Bitterroot Forest employees. The landowners said they would have to talk that over among themselves to see if that would be agreeable.
In the meantime, Commission Chris Hoffman suggested landowners post their property as prescribed by law. And he warned members of the public to not to interact inappropriately with landowners.
While the law does not allow the public to remove an obstacle like a gate from a county road, the law does allow the public to use the road, said Deputy County Attorney Dan Browder.
Hoffman said he was interested in working with the community to solve the problem.
“Particularly one that’s been sitting here for most a half of a century,” Hoffman said of the gate. “What I’m not interested in rehashing. I’m interested in them doing their part and us doing our part. I’m not interested in sitting up here and us being called names anymore. … I’m not interested in any more allegations that we’re doing this for some evil United Nations.
“I don’t want to hear any more of that,” he said. “I’m more than willing to sit down and work with the Forest Service, the user groups, the neighbors, the landowners to try to come to a resolution that doesn’t place our sheriff’s office in horrible situation and doesn’t endanger lives or property.”