The Sno-Packers Snowmobile Club thought they had all the approval they needed to build a recreational bridge over a creek in Alabama.
County officials disagree. County Manager Jay Gsell said this morning the bridge violates state law and the only option for the county is to remove it.
Department of Highway workers are tearing down the bridge today.
The bridge, which club members say took 400 man hours to build and is worth at least $40,000, spans a creek off Sour Springs Road, which is a dirt road off Roberts Road.
The club installed the bridge -- which club members largely pre-built in a garage prior to installation -- about a month ago. It's already been heavily used, according to club secretary Jane Chaddock, by fishermen, birdwatchers and hikers.
"It's nothing but a fiasco for something that was so beautiful and so much work," Chaddock said.
Doug Hagen, Genesee County snowmobile coordinator, said the club felt it had approval for construction of the bridge -- from County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens signing off on plans, to the County Legislature's Public Services Committee saying it should be built, to officials from the Town of Alabama saying they didn't oppose the construction.
Gsell said there was never any official permission given from the county and since the bridge is on the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, there needs to be more than tacit approval from the federal government for snowmobilers to ride right through the preserve.
But the main issue from a county perspective, Gsell said, is that any bridge over 5-feet long becomes county responsibility.
The county would be liable for any injuries resulting from use of the bridge should there be a problem.
And although club officials, according to Hagen, believe the bridge exceeds engineering standards for its intended use, Gsell said that's not necessarily true.
"Because the snowmobile club has actually admitted that they're going to use that bridge to put their snowmobiles on to cross that body of water, that bridge must meet state and federal guidelines as far as structural integrity, the distances, the accessibility...and that's not presently the case," Gsell said.
"The highway superintendent then, under state highway law, has to deal with the issue in terms of either removing it, which right now is our only logical option, or at some point involving some major capital project - we're talking about a couple of million dollars of replacing a bridge structure, because anything over 5 feet is the responsibility of county government. But, that doesn't mean we have to take ownership of something that people put there illegally and without anybody's permission."
According to Hagen, Sheriff's deputies are on scene at the bridge tear-down ensuring club members don't get out of hand.
Hagen said all of the material and labor to build the bridge was donated, but if he had to guess at the cost of material and construction, he would put it at $40,000.
"That bridge was built at absolutely no taxpayer expense," Hagen noted, "and now taxpayers are paying for that bridge to be ripped out."
Chaddock fought back tears while we spoke. She said people who have seen the bridge love it.
"People say it's the best bridge they've ever seen," Chaddock said. "People have said they wanted to get married on that bridge."
UPDATE 11:43 a.m.: The bridge is gone. It was, however, removed in one piece and will be put in storage, Tim Hens said. He just returned to his office from the site, he said.
"Unfortunately, when the club put the bridge in without permission, it kind of forced our hand," Hens said. "I don't think anybody from the county wanted to remove that bridge, but it's what we had to do to protect county taxpayers from liability."
Hens said the county -- which has helped the snowmobile club raise $500,000 in grants from state and federal agencies over the past several years -- was trying to find a way to either get a bridge in place, or allow a bridge to be built, but had not been able to complete that process before the bridge went up.
UPDATE 3:30 p.m. (Billie Owens): The bridge came down easily and quickly this morning, according to the workers who remained at the scene afterward.
"It was a solid, well-built bridge, made of steel and wood," said county employee Aaron Zinkovich.
Another worker added that County Highway Superintendent Hens got verbally thrashed by snowmobile enthusiasts at the scene.
"They beat up on him pretty good - called him every name in the book," he said.
The snowmobilers wasted no time getting lawyered up. They've retained Roland R. Georger, of Damon Morey Attorneys at Law in Clarence, to advise them on the matter.
"I have a lot of investigating to do," Georger said, adding that will include looking at the permitting process.
Agenda minutes of the Byron-based Genesee County Snowmobile Association from Sept. 8 -- under the Old Business section -- reported that the county attorney "has told Co. Highway and Town of Alabama that the county cannot support the bridge concept because of liability. We all need to lobby Hawley and our county legislators for adopting a county law." Hagen attented the meeting along with other snowmobile group representatives.
The Sour Springs Bridge was built in the ensuing weeks.
UPDATE: Photo above by Billie Owens
UPDATE: Picture below submitted anonymously with no comment. It looks like this would be the old bridge that was destroyed by an alleged drunken driver.
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