On Wednesday, Feb. 2 state legislators serving on the transportation committee will hear testimonies regarding House Bill 290. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, addresses a difficult subject - one that pertains directly to an issue facing Prairie County.
If enacted HB 290 would require landowners to seek authorization from local officials before installing a barrier on a road. According to the bill’s sponsor the bill’s intent is to shift the burden of proof from commissioners to landowners, giving counties a legal backdrop to rely on as they protect publically invested roads.
The bill has already drawn the ire of many.
Strong opposition against the bill from private property proponents is expected. Access groups favoring the bill are also expected to testify.
Prairie County officials have weighed in on the bill, contacting Rep. Lee Randall, R-Broadus, who serves as vice chair of the transportation committee. Randall represents Prairie County constituents along with voters from five other counties.
Prairie County commissioners recognized the usefulness of HB 290, but pointed to modifications that they believe need to be made to the bill. Current wording within the bill would require landowners to contact their respective board of county commission each time a landowner wanted to post, fence, or gate a road. With a multitude of two-track roads in existence, that are not maintained by county road crews, this proposition, Prairie County commissioners say, would lead to “nightmare” scenarios.
It’s a valid point and one that can easily be addressed.
It requires the definition of a public road. A long-standing issue the Montana Legislature has struggled with as they have contemplated the concerns and opinions of landowners, access groups and state agencies.
When it comes to defining public roads consider the use of taxpayer dollars.
It’s the key principle that stands out among the list of concerns the commissioners addressed in their letter to Rep. Randall.
If taxpayer invested items cannot be protected, then what is the use of paying taxes? If equipment, vehicles or buildings purchased through taxpayer dollars can be taken away by private individuals for private use, then why should you and I fund the county’s expenditures?
It’s a ridiculous proposition, right? Imagine someone coming in and stealing the county courthouse or the road crew’s recently purchased road blader - and then presuming to use it legally. Preposterous! But that’s exactly what’s happening each time a private individual blocks access on an existing road that has been maintained using public funds for five years or more.
The county is then left fighting a legal battle on what should be a commonsense issue.
Taxpayer dollars are valuable. They are to be protected. Items purchased, built or maintained using taxpayer dollars are publically invested and are not intended for private use solely.
An amended provision to HB 290 defining existing public roads as those with invested taxpayer dollars is something Rep. Sesso says he’s willing to add to the bill. The intent of the bill is to protect both the private property owner and the local governing body by providing a local legal process that is to be followed before a barrier can be placed on a road.
As our county spends more time and more taxpayer funds on a legal battle concerning a road built and maintained for over 40 years using taxpayer dollars, state legislators now have an opportunity to vote on a bill that will protect publically invested roads and help prevent wasteful legal battles.
Rep. Randall says he is aware of the Scenic View Road issue that faces Prairie County. That’s helpful. But before the work of a legislator can be deemed commendable, courageous steps must be taken to address difficult issues in a solvable and fair manner.
Slight modifications may be needed in HB 290, but overall the bill offers something Prairie County could have used about four years ago – legal protection.
If the 2011 Republican-controlled state Legislature shrugs off this difficult road issue once again, then maybe it’s time to call on the action of others. A ballot initiative can do the work
legislators neglect and may leave landowners in a predicament familiar to the outfitters.
Published Feb. 2, 2011