JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Check’s In The Mail … Er … At The Courthouse

In a file cabinet at the Billings County Clerk of Court’s office in Medora, N.D., there are four checks totaling $54,975 waiting to be picked up by members of the Short family, owners of a ranch about a dozen miles north of town. County Clerk of Court Juliana Hammerstrom is not holding her breath waiting for them to be claimed.

That’s the latest news regarding the status of the proposed Little Missouri River Crossing in Billings County, the now infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”

The checks are in payment for land the county has taken from the Short family to build the bridge. The Shorts have said “No, thank you.” And that has set off one of the most interesting legal battles the county has ever seen. Legal briefs are flying all over the federal courthouse in Bismarck and the Billings County Courthouse in Medora. Here’s an update.

In my last report, I said the Short family, on whose land the Billings County Commissioners want to place the bridge, has filed a lawsuit against the County Commission, alleging “breach of contract,” after the county commissioners decided to ignore an earlier signed agreement in which the county would abandon the plans to build the bridge, in return for the Short family to drop its previously filed lawsuits against the county.

That agreement was signed in 2021, but the 2022 election changed the makeup of the commission and in 2023 the commission changed its mind. At an April meeting this year, the commissioners announced they intended to offer the ranchers $20,000 an acre for their land to build the bridge and roads to it, and if the ranchers turned it down, they would use their power of eminent domain to take it — for a substantially smaller amount.

Well, that sent the Short family scrambling to the lawyer’s office, and Aug. 2 they filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the county. The very next day, Aug. 3, the commission, at its regular August meeting, voted to ignore the lawsuit and proceed with condemnation of the Short land and begin building the bridge.

The county didn’t waste any time. The next week, on Aug. 7, using its right of eminent domain, the county took possession of 30 acres of the Short ranch. So as of Aug. 7, the county owns the land on which it wants to build a bridge. At least on the west side of the river. For now, at least. I’m still checking on the east side, land owned by rancher Ben Simons. There’s no check waiting for hm at the courthouse, so I guess he’s still negotiating. At least they haven’t taken his land. Yet.

So, the county has half the land it needs, and it can start building roads and bridges. The county has met all the legal requirements for the use of eminent domain. It doesn’t give a damn whether the Shorts ever come and pick up that check. And I’m guessing the east side deal with the Simons family will get resolved pretty quickly.

But whoa! Hold on a minute! Not so fast! On Aug. 18, the Short family filed another brief, asking the federal district court in Bismarck to issue a temporary restraining order against the county to stop it from starting construction until their original breach of contract lawsuit is decided.

I think the judge in the case is going to be U.S. District Judge Dan Traynor. The next move is his. He can schedule a hearing on the request for an injunction, or just say “Yes,” or “No.” As much as I’d like him to just say “Yes” to the Shorts and “No,” to the county, I kind of hope there’s a hearing. As much as I dislike courtrooms, I’d like to attend that.

My guess, after reading the briefs filed by the Short family’s attorneys, is that they are going to acknowledge that eminent domain is legal, but they are going to appeal to the judge’s better angels, pleading that it is just not a very nice thing to do in rural North Dakota. The government coming in and taking someone’s land is just not neighborly. Especially after the government signed an agreement not to do that.

That’s the breach of contract thing. Out west in the North Dakota Bad Lands, a deal is a deal once there’s been a handshake. In this case, it’s even more than a handshake — it’s a signed agreement, and the county has torn up the paper and broken the deal.

The job for the Shorts’ lawyers now is to convince the judge that there’s a pretty good chance that the breach of contract case will stand up. If they can do that, the judge will grant them the injunction to restrain the county from starting construction until the court case is settled, one way or the other. If the judge believes that the Shorts have a good chance of prevailing in their lawsuit, then he can enjoin the county from building.

But what if he doesn’t?

In that case, even this week, before he decides, the county can go in with bulldozers and start ripping up the land between the road on the west side of the Little Missouri and the river itself. That would be sad. It is a beautiful piece of land. A rancher once told me it was “one of the best bottoms on the river.” The Shorts would have no recourse if that happens. Except to go to the courthouse and pick up the woefully inadequate check.

Or maybe some friends of theirs who value the beauty and quiet of the Little Missouri River valley will go stand in front of the bulldozer. Hmmmm.

Luckily, it’s late September, so construction is not likely to happen until next spring. And the county commissioners are going to have to sit down in an open meeting and discuss if they are ready to spend $15 million of the county taxpayers’ money on a project that won’t benefit very many of those taxpayers. Only a handful of ranchers, maybe only two or three, will benefit from the bridge by making the trip to Medora from their ranches shorter. And they are the ones who will have to put up with the noise and dust clouds from the huge increase in truck traffic through their ranches once the oil boys start using the bridge.

The Short family’s lawyers have promised to let me know when the judge decides something. And I’ll try to check in with the Simons family. When I find out more, I’ll let you know, too.

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