When the local District Court ruled against the landowners along Hughes Creek who want to keep the gate up that blocks Hughes Creek Road at about the nine-mile mark, they took their case to the Montana Supreme Court. On July 9, the Supreme Court issued an order denying that appeal and supporting the lower court’s order.
The landowners petitioned the County Commissioners to abandon the road above the gate passing through their properties in 2016, but the Commissioners denied the petition. The landowners sued but the District Court upheld the commissioners’ actions.
The gate was erected in the 1970’s and has remained in place since then. According to the ruling, the dispute hinged on the length of the road. The landowners based their claim that the road stops at the gate about nine miles up on a single map that was made in 1965 showing the road was only about eight miles long. The Commissioners found in their investigation plenty of evidence that the road was about 12 miles long when it was adopted. The Court sided with the commissioners on this fact.
The landowners, members of the Bugli and Cox families, argued that the Board of County Commissioners exceeded its jurisdiction when it denied their request to abandon the top of Hughes Creek Road where it traverses their properties.
The commissioners disagreed, finding that the road was almost 12 miles long and provides access to public lands beyond. The law prohibits the county from closing roads that cross public land that provide access to public lands beyond.
Although the landowners argued that the issue was actually settled in 1984 by a District Court, the Supreme Court disagreed stating that no final judgment was ever filed in the case.
The court found that by submitting their petition to abandon the road that the landowners “voluntarily chose, accepted, and submitted to the [Board’s] jurisdiction and committed their road dispute to the statutory process…including necessary fact-finding. The landowners are now bound to that process and cannot relitigate these issues in a separate forum.”
Justice Laurie McKinnon offered a dissenting point of view, arguing that the board did not have the jurisdiction.
“The petition before the Board was to abandon four-tenths of a mile of county road. The Board exceeded its statutory authority when there was no duly filed petition to create a county road but it nonetheless found that Hughes Creek Road was a county road extending nearly 12 miles. While the Board was within its statutory authority to grant or deny the petition for abandonment respecting the four-tenths section of the road, its findings respecting the remainder of the road were not statutorily authorized. The effect of the Board’s actions were that Landowners did not have the opportunity to litigate in a court the existence, location, and conditions of the road, which has long been the practice in Montana.”