Saturday, February 24, 2018

Petition deemed invalid, possible lawsuit against county in the works

Citizen frustration was evident at this week’s Stillwater County Commissioners’ agenda meeting as a decision was made public regarding the Beartooth Front Citizen Initiated Zone petition.

A letter from Clerk & Recorder Heidi Stadel to the commissioners was on the agenda as a file item, and it was read aloud following a question from a citizen. The letter stated that the petition did not meet the threshold of 60 percent of affected real property owners, and thus is not valid.

The threshold was not met because people with mineral interests in the area of the proposed zone were not included in the petition process. After considering the issue and seeking outside opinions, County Attorney Nancy Rohde advised Stadel that mineral interests should be included in the signature count.

Several members of the petitioning Beartooth Front Group read prepared remarks condemning the county’s decision.

Joan Brownell, a Fishtail resident, gave a detailed timeline of the four-year petition process in which the Beartooth Front Group has been involved. This time period included instances of the petitioning group receiving changing instructions from the county on how to collect signatures.

Bill Hand, another resident of the southern part of the county, explained the goals of the petitioning group, explaining that, “our goal with the Beartooth Front CIZ petition is to ensure southern Stillwater County’s unique quality of life and agricultural prosperity will be preserved and passed down to future generations.”

Fishtail resident Rita Westrum had questions for the county attorney regarding the weight of votes from land owners versus mineral rights owners. She also inquired about the percentage of mineral rights owners that was achieved by the petition. Rohde did not answer the questions, due to them occurring during a file item, rather than action item, on the agenda.

Burt Williams explained the petitioners’ frustrations with the county due to the decision, saying the citizens’ interests were not being taken into consideration. The petitioners do not agree with the county’s interpretation of Montana law regarding mineral rights inclusion in the petition, and Williams said they “will take whatever action is necessary to counter the decision.”

A lawsuit against the county was mentioned at the meeting, and afterward the petitioners confirmed for the News that the group is planning to take legal action against the county.

At the meeting, Commissioner Maureen Davey said the decision was not made by the commissioners, but rather was made by the clerk & recorder during the validation process based on the county attorney’s guidance.

Check back next week for a full story on the petition and the process.