By Kay Braddock
Gaining public access on roads that run through, federal, state, and especially deeded lands is a sensitive subject and one that most county commissioners are reluctant to delve into, let alone discuss for public consumption.
“We’re not trying to force access or deny access,” Petroleum County Commissioner Chris King emphasized when asked about the county’s approach to gaining public rights-of-ways on roads running through deeded property. “We’re just trying to clean up the road book,” he further explained.
McCone County Commissioner Connie Eissinger spoke in the same vein. “These things need to be cleaned up,” she said.
A similar hesitancy can be heard in the voices of county commissioners throughout Eastern Montana when asked about road access.
It’s not hard to understand why. In an area that predominately relies on ranching and agriculture, many landowners may be less than enthusiastic about signing easements to roads running through remote portions of their deeded property.
But as Rick Strohmyer, area manager of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, sees it, there may be little choice. The DNRC manages state trust lands, many of which contain roads where no public rights-of-way exist.
As stricter financial lending practices are enforced, lending institutions are finding the need to ensure that there is public access to the land they’re financing regardless of whose land the road travels.
“If you want a loan, then you’ve got to have access to your property free and clear,” Strohmyer explained. “If a person is independently wealthy and they don’t have to get a loan, no pun intended, they might not have to go down that road at all.”
Dick Mitchell of Security Abstract and Title in Miles City made that same point at November’s meeting with the Southeastern Montana Stockgrowers Association. Mitchell, who has worked in the title industry for 30 years, says he has seen instances where buyers have backed out or lenders have refused to lend money due to a lack of public access to a described property.
“With the banking crisis, you’re finding more requirements,” Mitchell said, noting lending institutions are more apt to cross t’s and dot i’s now more than ever before. For land purchases, that means knowing available access exists.
“There has to be a lot of communication between landowners and their county government,” Mitchell said. “That two-hour meeting that I attended is just the tip of the iceberg.”
That iceberg - left to many Eastern Montana county commissioners serving on a part-time basis - includes gaining access on roads leading through state, federal and deeded properties, all of which entail a different process.
As Spencer Huether points out it also requires a good knowledge of maps and computers, in order to give proper descriptions of the roads where easements are being sought. Huether has been working on the road project for Carter and Fallon counties since 2001.
Federal and state lands
While federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management require no payments from counties seeking road rights-of-ways, state trust lands managed by the DNRC do. That’s because funds raised from state trust lands are used to fund Montana’s public schools and court rulings have determined that the trust must be compensated monetarily.
In Prairie County state trust lands fee schedules can run between $125 per acre to $1,500 per acre, depending on the classification of the lands. Classifications include: Remote, foothill, rural, grazing, dry crop and irrigated.
A typical road rights-of-way calls for a 60-foot width, but can run as small as 30-feet, as the typical driving surface runs 24-feet, according to Lisa Axline of the DNRC.
Only five of Montana’s 56 counties have begun the process of gaining easements through state trust lands, according to Axline. The five counties include: Prairie, Custer, Beaverhead, Fallon and Richland.
“We’ve seen more interest in the past month,” Axline said, noting the upcoming sunset of the historic easement may be instigating the increased attention.
Historic easements, which cut costs by negating the need for surveying land and performing environmental impact studies, will end Oct. 1, 2011.
Records show easements on state trust lands in Prairie County go as far back as 1920 and are as recent as 2007.
“They jumped right on it,” Axline said of Prairie County commissioners and their response to gaining historic easements when their first became available in 2001. “They’re sitting pretty good.”
Although differences in rules and processes can make gaining public access for roads a laborious process, the need nevertheless seems to exist.
“It’s very hard to get peoples’ minds and hands around this thing,” Strohmyer said. “While it isn’t a big issue right now, its becoming more of an issue as time goes by.”