County commissioners turn backs on Beartooth landowners
By rejecting a petition of over 550 landowners to establish a special zone along the Beartooth Front, the Stillwater Commissioners this week – after three years of inaction, delays, and excuses – have decided to turn their backs on the people who pay their salaries to stand up for unknown outside interests.
Since 1953, when citizen initiated zoning became Montana law, 111 zones have been put in place all over the state, including one in Stillwater County. The most basic requirement is a petition signed by 60 percent of the landowners in the proposed zone.
What the commissioners have done in Gallatin, Missoula, Ravalli, and Yellowstone counties — where many of these zones reside — is honor the grass roots efforts of their constituents. When presented with valid legal petitions, they approve them.
Not in Stillwater County, where officials have decided to invent new law to keep landowners from exercising their rights. Last August, the Commissioners certified that the petitioners reached the required 60 percent of signatures. But then they decided to get clever.
In rejecting the zone they came up with a whole new rule never used before in any Montana county. What they’ve told the petitioners is they need the signatures of 60 percent of the surface owners, but ALSO 60 percent of the owners of mineral rights beneath the surface.
The Commissioners know this is impossible. Everybody knows who the surface owners are. They pay property taxes, vote in elections, shop at the IGAs. But nobody knows who the mineral holders are. They don’t pay local taxes, and they have no stake in Stillwater County other than the remote hope of getting a royalty check.
No title company has a list of them. Neither does the County Clerk. I don’t know who owns mineral rights under our property, and you probably don’t either. The County has invented a standard that is impossible for any petitioners to achieve, or for the County to validate. It is simply an attempt to circumvent the law.
Beartooth Front landowners are trying to establish reasonable regulations on oil and gas drilling to preserve their community for the future. The petitioners do not oppose drilling, and are very clear that mineral owners have the right to develop their holdings. What they seek is a balance that will protect farming, ranching, and recreation, and preserve a way of life long after the operators have moved on. It is a reasonable and legal goal.
It’s hard to imagine why the Commissioners want to spend precious resources to prove a fantasy legal theory in court against local landowners. Maybe they don’t understand what they’re doing, maybe they don’t care about the people who pay their salaries, or maybe they are being influenced by outside interests. Time will tell.