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Couple behind McDonald Creek home takes fight to federal court

by CHRIS PETERSON
Hungry Horse News | January 3, 2024 1:00 AM

A California couple is taking a two-pronged legal approach to fight the ordered removal of their house along the banks of McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park.

John and Stacy Ambler filed suit against the Flathead Conservation District in federal court earlier this month. The Amblers are asking the court to rule on whether the Flathead Conservation District has jurisdiction to order the house removed.

The Amblers have also filed suit in Flathead County District Court against the conservation district.

John and Stacy Ambler were found to have illegally built the house under the Montana Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act by the conservation district earlier this year. The act is also known as the 310 law and in order to disturb a streambank in Montana or do work near a stream, a private landowner first must get approval from its local conservation district and obtain a 310 permit.

The Amblers never did that, claiming county officials told them they didn’t need any permits to build the home.

The house is on private property that predates the creation of Glacier National Park in 1910. It dates back to 1908, when Apgar, a village along the banks of the creek and Lake McDonald, was subdivided. The house sits on a 2,300-square-feet lot and the Amblers put a concrete retaining wall into the streambank to build the home.

In the federal suit, the Amblers, through attorneys Trent Baker and J.R. Casillas, dispute that the state has jurisdiction over the house. They argue that the Montana Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act doesn’t apply, claiming Glacier National Park has jurisdiction in the case, not the state of Montana.

Glacier did allow the Amblers to connect to the park’s sewer and water system, which serves Apgar, home to both public and private facilities. The background in the case begins with several complaints from residents and former park employees as the house was going up earlier this year. 

The conservation district, responding to complaints from the residents, launched an investigation of the home late last winter. By then, it was framed in and sided. The district found it violated the 310 law and ordered it taken down by Nov. 1.

But under the 310 law, the Amblers could appeal that decision and they did so, making their case in August to hearing officer Laurie Zeller, the former bureau chief of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Baker argued the Conservation District had no jurisdiction in the case because the state ceded its authority when the area became a national park in 1910.

But Zeller rejected that argument, noting that Glacier’s enabling legislation specifically allows claims made prior to it becoming a national park.

“Nothing herein contained shall affect any valid claim, location, or entry existing under the land laws of the United States before May 11, 1910, or the rights of any such claimant, locator, or entryman to the full use and enjoyment of his land,” the legislation that created the park states.

“Petitioners’ property was a valid claim existing before 1910. This language undermines petitioner’s contention Glacier National Park has exclusive jurisdiction over private property because the private property rights were reserved and not definitively ceded in the 1910 Act,” Zeller found.

Zeller found the conservation district did have jurisdiction and presented her findings in the case in mid-November to the district board.

The district, in turn, once again ordered the house be removed, this time by April 1, 2024.

Park Superintendent David Roemer previously told the Hungry Horse News that the park’s jurisdiction in the case starts at the high water mark of the idyllic stream.

According to locals, a house once sat on the lot, but the Flood of 1964 washed away the bank and the home was demolished, as it sat precariously on the undercut bank after the flood.

The Amblers, in turn, built their home on what was left of the lot.