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Legal limbo continues in the Ambler inholding case

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | February 7, 2024 2:00 AM

The Flathead Conservation District says a couple that it claims illegally built a home along the banks of McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park is, in essence, trying to have its cake and it eat it too.

“The plaintiffs complaint relies on the assumption that their private inholding within Glacier National Park is essentially unregulated property — subject to no state or federal laws or regulations,” the Conservation District argued in a recently filed answer to John and Stacy Ambler’s lawsuit in United States District Court in Missoula.

In late 2022 and early 2023 the Amblers built a home on the banks of the idyllic creek on roughly 2,300 square-foot privately-owned lot along the banks of the idyllic creek in Glacier National Park. In order to do so, they also poured a concrete retaining wall into the streambank as well as placed rock footers into the bank for decks.

Concerned residents, seeing the home being built, filed complaints against the Amblers with the Flathead Conservation District. The District oversees and enforces the Montana Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act. It did an investigation and found that the house violated the state law because the Amblers never sought, nor received the necessary permits to build the home. The District, in turn, ordered the home removed.

After a hearing and other legal wrangling in 2023, the Amblers filed suit against the District in both federal and county court, claiming they did nothing wrong and that the District has no jurisdiction in the case, because the home is inside Glacier National Park.The property is what’s known as an inholding — private land that predates the creation of the park in 1910. The Amblers plot was established as part of a subdivision of Apgar, a small and largely privately-held village in Glacier, created in 1908 by Charles Howes.

The federal case is now moving along and a pre-trial conference is scheduled for late March.

The District in the latest court filing, claims the Amblers are trying, in essence, to have it both ways — claiming the state has no jurisdiction because the home is inside the park, and also claiming the federal government has no jurisdiction because it’s private property that’s unzoned in Flathead County.

The District, in the latest court filings, disagrees on both points.

It points to the enabling legislation which created Glacier in 1910.

“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.

In other words, private land remains private land, regardless if it’s in Glacier National Park boundaries. But it also is subject to state and local laws, the District maintains.

But the Amblers tell a different story.

They claim they were given the OK to build the house in Apgar on May 13, 2019 when Flathead County planning office told them in writing they could do “whatever they want with the land without restriction,” as the land is unzoned.

That is true, but it doesn’t preclude the state Streambed Law, the District maintains.

The Amblers also point to another section of Montana law, which ceded authority to Glacier when the park was created.

The Park Service, at least publicly, has stayed out of the matter. It did allow the Amblers to hook up to the sewer and water system it administers in Apgar and Superintendent David Roemer has previously told the Hungry Horse News that the park’s jurisdiction begins at the high water mark, which is a few feet below the home.

The Amblers in local court have changed their tactics a bit as well.

They now claim they haven’t been afforded due process and their private property rights are being violated because they weren’t given adequate time to fully make their case.

They claim the Conservation District is treating them differently than other landowners, a violation of equal protection clauses of the Montana State Constitution.

The District last year ordered the house removed by April 1. But the state Streambed law also allows the Amblers to chance to file suit to dispute the District’s findings, so it doesn’t seem likely that the house will be torn down anytime soon.

The Amblers are represented by Missoula attorney Trent Baker and the District is represented by Whitefish attorney Camisha Sawtelle.

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