Ravalli County and Private Property Rights Collide
By Tim Ravndal
Several months ago, Redoubt News-Montana learned of a private property dispute in Ravalli County. The Ravalli County Commissioners are facing a battle between the citizens that own this land and the law.
Decades ago, citizens bought some private property in the Hughes Creek drainage. This property was recorded under Land Patent Laws at the turn of the century. Enjoyment of that private property was never called into question. The current owners through a legal title search found no encumbrances on the property.
Green decoy groups and environmental enthusiasts believe that the public should have access to United States Forest Service Lands beyond the private property in Hughes Creek. These individuals and representatives came to the Ravalli County Commission requesting that they remove the gate where an existing road enters the property.
It is claimed that the county owns the road, and on behalf of the citizens, it is their legal obligation to remove the gate blocking public access to public land.
Because of this action by recommendations from the county, and statutory procedure, the landowners filed a petition with the county to abandon less than a half-mile of the road on their private property. It was purported that the petition process would resolve the dispute over the county road. The commissioners ruled against the petition and gave the landowners notice that they would be removing the gate.
With the threat of the loss of private property rights, the owners challenged the commission on their ruling. The commission initially determined that there were no adverse claims on this property. Based on documentation submitted to the courts, the court ruled on behalf of the county giving them deference to the public land access issue citing the process was properly followed.
There is an ongoing debate over private property rights, specifically property that is known as an “in-holding property” within the boundaries of the United States Government managed lands. The United States Forest Service also sided with the County Commissioners claiming the public has a right to access the public land beyond the private property.
Since that decision, Ravalli County Commissioners temporarily placed a hold on their presumed authority to remove the gate on private property. This afforded the landowners an opportunity to review their options.
The landowners mounted an extensive research into the historic foundation associated with the patents on their property. This research and resolve revealed specific documents that had never been brought into question in any of the proceedings claiming adverse possession by the county.
This discovery showed that when the land patent office processed the claims on this property, the procedure was followed by the original owner, the Federal Government and Ravalli County. In that discovery, there were no claims of any roads on that property belonging to the public or reserved to the government.
This documentation negates claims that there is a public road affecting private property rights. According to the landowners, this puts to rest the claim that there is an established public road traversing through their private property.
Here in Montana, there are multiple statutes that regulate the latitude and authority of local government. The foundation of those statutes is purported to be within the bounds of both the Federal Constitution and the Constitution of Montana.
In multiple cases, the laws have been challenged, and even the 9th Circuit has ruled on government authority over private land and adverse claims. The officials in Broadwater County Montana are currently dealing with similar disputes whereas the authority of the local government is at play.
The Ravalli County Commissioners after nearly 6 hours of testimony decided the issue is still legally cloudy. After extensive information that was discovered and presented, the commission determined that it is best to serve the citizens with further legal analysis.
The commission unanimously agreed to work with the district legislative representative to seek a legal opinion from the Montana Attorney General. It was agreed that the commission would attempt to get an opinion from Mr. Fox by the month of March.
The citizens in part agree with the decision but showed frustration with how the county commission is handling this issue. The video that is included in this is partial segments pulled from the nearly 6-hour meeting. The concern based on the rights of the people and the obligation by the elected officials will continue to take center stage in Ravalli County Montana.
In the event that anyone would like to have the entire video recording of this six-hour meeting, contact Redoubt News.
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