Billings County revives controversial bridge project after shift in commission support
Considerations on reviving a controversial bridge project abandoned in 2021 involving the potential use of eminent domain, faces opposition from county residents and Sheriff.
MEDORA, N.D. — Billings County may revive a controversial bridge project, after a recent commission election tilted the balance in its favor. The project was originally abandoned in July 2021, but Billings County State’s Attorney Pat Weir said the county spent approximately $4.5 million on the environmental impact study and now the bridge and potential use of eminent domain to force its construction is back on the table.
Controversy surrounding the project prompted complaints to the ND Attorney General's Office, who in reviewing citizen concerns found that the commission was in violation of the law when they held meeting regarding the bridge on Sept. 28, 2021.
With the election of Steven Klym as the new Commissioner, the three-member commission has shifted its support of the bridge. At a regularly scheduled commission meeting on Feb. 7, Klym emphasized urgency for the project and stated that the project had been delayed for an excessive amount of time.
Klym expressed his desire to make use of the current EIS and move forward with the project, however, Commissioner Dean Rodne disagreed and voted against the motion — citing concerns over the use of eminent domain.
Commissioner Lester Iverson then motioned to proceed with the previously selected location, with Klym voting in favor and Rodne voting against. Rodne said he felt the motion was premature and that the land should have been acquired first.
A resident asked about the type of bridge being planned, to which Commissioner Iverson stated it will be a full bridge, as there will not be any more low water crossings built in the area. The commission unanimously hired Jen Turnbow from Ulteig Engineering as the project director and approved hiring outside legal counsel to represent the county.
Commissioner Iverson was unavailable for comment and Commissioner Klym declined to answer questions. During a phone interview with The Dickinson Press on Wednesday, Rodne elaborated on his position.
“I'm opposed to it because of eminent domain. I said I wasn't opposed to a bridge up there somewhere. It needs to be with landowners who agreed,” Rodne said. “I don't feel that we need to take 66 acres away from two ranchers’ ranches to build this. I don't.”
When pressed on the question of a real need for the new structure, Rodne said he doesn’t believe one exists.
“I believe it isn't totally necessary,” Rodne said.
Dave Short, whose family owns the ranch the county seeks to build the bridge through, is frustrated with the two commissioners pushing this forward. Short said the family spent approximately $500,000 on litigation against the project before dropping their lawsuits in 2021. His family settled the land in 1903, so it has deep sentimental value to him. Short believes former Billings County Commissioner Jim Arthaud is the driving force behind the bridge effort, and alleged that Arthaud has used financial and business clout to exert an “inappropriate” level of influence over municipal government in the area.
“If there is a need from the public for a bridge, it needs to go on public land. And there is public land right there connecting Highways 85 and 16. The public has already spoken and they do not want this bridge,” Short said. “In North Dakota, you don't take private property for one man's trucking company… The Short family is going to fight with whatever we can, and however we can.”
He also said the costs to taxpayers would be far in excess of any benefit they might glean from having such a bridge. During previous efforts on the project, proponents such as Iverson cited a need for the bridge in order to provide emergency services to rural residents. Short denounced this as silly and called it “Jim Arthaud’s bridge to nowhere.”
“Billings County will spend in excess of $20 million, and the rough estimates are right at $25 million to build this bridge. There's under 20 total people who live out there. I mean, it's almost mind boggling,” Short said.
Billings County Sheriff Dean Wykoff also expressed his opposition to the use eminent domain in a statement to The Press provided via email, explaining that he grew up on a ranch between Medora and Sentinel Butte.
“Sheriff Dean Wyckoff does not support utilizing eminent domain to take private land away from county landowners to build a bridge. While the sheriff's office supports a river crossing of some sort for emergency response, Sheriff Wyckoff believes that a river crossing should only be put in if the county has a willing seller. He grew up on a farm and ranch in the badlands that's been in his family for four generations,” the statement read. “Wyckoff knows the bridge has been a hot topic for county residents on both sides of the issue. He cannot support the concept of taking away private landowner rights. Wyckoff also said that he would not want eminent domain used on his family's land, and that he understands and is sympathetic to the landowners whose property has been identified for eminent domain. Sheriff Wyckoff believes that a solution may exist if county and federal officials collaborate or if a willing landowner agrees to sell their property.”