JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — An Update On The ‘Bridge To Nowhere’

Somebody asked in a comment on my blog last week for an update on the proposed Little Missouri Crossing north of Medora, N.D. Here’s some information stolen from an article I wrote for Dakota Country magazine’s May issue, which should be on the newsstands later this week, or in your mailbox if you subscribe, which you should do.

Out in the North Dakota Badlands, more shots have been fired in what has become a contentious confrontation over private property rights involving a controversial proposal to build a new bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River.

At issue right now is the longstanding desire by some former and current county commissioners to use the eminent domain power of county government to take 66 acres of Little Missouri bottomland for a bridge, and the road system to get to it, from landowners unwilling to part with it.

That doesn’t sound like a lot — 66 acres — but the proposed taking cuts through the heart of one of the most scenic “bottoms” on the entire Little Missouri and dissects one of North Dakota’s historic ranches. The road and bridge could send oilfield trucks, hundreds of them, maybe as many as a thousand a day, within a few hundred yards of a ranch operation owned by the family of the late U.S. Congressman Don Short.

At a meeting in the historic cowtown of Medora in early April, Billings County commissioners listened to proponents and opponents of the idea (half an hour each, with a clock running) and then locked themselves in a private room and voted to offer the Short family and their neighbors on the other side of the river $2,500 an acre for a narrow strip of land through their ranches, knowing full well where the owners were going to tell them to shove their $165,000 check. At the conclusion of the closed meeting, they came out, announced their offer to the 50 or so Billings County residents who had come to watch the show and adjourned, with no discussion.

Shortly, a letter went out to the landowners with the offer. They declined the offer. That set the wheels in motion for the eminent domain process. The county claims to have the right to take the land as a “public necessity” if, indeed, the three county commissioners have the cojones to actually proceed with the condemnation process.

Billings County is one of the state’s most conservative counties. Most county residents don’t look kindly on this kind of government action. In fact, it’s pretty unusual that commissioners in such a conservative area would even consider it. The idea has already cost one longtime county commissioner his seat on the commission.

The bridge is the brainchild of former commissioner Jim Arthaud, one of the county’s richest men, until recently a co-owner of one of the largest trucking companies in the North Dakota oil patch, who at one time predicted that as many as 1,000 trucks would use the bridge each day once it is built, many of them from his own company.

Arthaud runs in the top tier of North Dakota Republican politics, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and officeholders, and he’s tried for years, to no avail, to use his connections to get state funds to pay for the bridge. Sorry, the governors said. We’ve got better uses for our limited highway funds than a “bridge to nowhere.” But thanks, anyway, for the campaign contributions.

So the county tried for federal funds. Commissioners spent a couple of million dollars of their residents’ tax dollars on an Environmental Impact Statement, hoping it would bring them federal highway tax dollars to build the bridge. Last year, the county applied for, and was denied, a $12 million federal grant. The county was notified the money had been turned down in September. So that was a couple of million dollars wasted. Arthaud then announced, with great fanfare, that the county, which has a lot of money in the bank because of its oil, would just go ahead and pay for it themselves.

That announcement brought a lawsuit against the county by the Short family. Last October, when the commissioners were considering the budget for the county for the year 2021, they included funding for the bridge in their budget. But apparently the family’s lawyer found a section of North Dakota law that says the county can’t build a bridge on someone’s land unless they receive a petition from local landowners to build it. So the family went to court. Their opinion, of course, is in direct conflict with the county’s contention that not only can it build a bridge, but it can use eminent domain to take the land for it. So a judge will settle this.

I wasn’t privy to the coffee table talk around Billings County in the weeks leading up to last November’s election, but I have to guess that the bridge played a role in the election results. After more than 20 years in office, Arthaud was soundly beaten at the polls. I’m guessing the combination of local residents’ distaste for the use of eminent domain, the wasted millions on the EIS and the price tag — the cost of the bridge is estimated at $15 million, and the Shorts, who have been paying property taxes on their ranch since 1903, pointed out that comes to almost $20,000 for every man, woman and child in the county — were a few good reasons for voters to throw Arthaud out of office.

Oh, and in a commission meeting shortly before the election, the lawyer for the Shorts also pointed to an apparent conflict of interest, by Arthaud, the commission chairman at the time. Through various LLCs in which he’s a partner, Arthaud owns mineral interests (oil and oil wells) in 15 sections of land within 10 miles of the proposed bridge site. He’d benefit mightily from the ability to get HIS trucks, servicing HIS oil wells, back and forth across the river. I’m guessing there was some coffee table talk about that, too.

Just a week after this month’s county commission meeting, Stark County Judge Dann Greenwood in Dickinson held a hearing and heard oral arguments on the new lawsuit. He promised a speedy decision — it could come any time now. There are two other lawsuits, both in federal court, one challenging the validity of the Environmental Impact Statement done by the county’s engineering firm, KLJ, as “inadequate,” and the other challenging the right of the county to use eminent domain to take land from the Shorts for the bridge and roads. As with most cases in federal courts these days, those are going to take a while to get settled. But it would seem to be risky for the county to spend any more money on the project until they are resolved because if the county loses, the work on the project stops. Period.

For its part, Billings County, in its response to the lawsuit, accuses the Short family of “serial litigation” and says, “Counties have a responsibility per state law to spend down their reserves so that only 75 percent of the appropriation for the ensuing year is held in reserve.”

Yeah, that’s a problem for a sparsely populated county with lots of oil and a big bank account. It has got to find a way to spend its money. Most counties would love to have that problem.

As for the “serial litigation” charges, well, yeah, they might be guilty of that, but it seems to me if someone wants to send thousands of trucks through your backyard (the bridge is literally right up against the feedlot of the Short ranch), you might want to do whatever it takes to stop that.

This whole fiasco has now dragged on for more than 10 years. It’s likely going to get resolved this year, either by the judges in the courthouses or by the county commissioners in Medora. If a federal judge and a state judge both say the county can proceed, then it will be decided by the commissioners. They’ll have to use eminent domain and pay for it themselves. They can decide to build the bridge or just kill it.

But if one of the judges says, “No!” to the county, that’s likely to be the end of it.

Don’t hold your breath. Nobody can predict the outcome of this one.

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