Thursday, March 22, 2018

The view of the Beartooth Mountains from Highway 78.

Citizens’ petition process moving forward

A petition proposing a Citizen Initiated Zoning (CIZ) District in southern Stillwater County has moved definitively into the verification stage as the deadline to update signatures passed on Friday.

The Beartooth Front District proposed by the petitioners would be tasked with creating regulations to ensure “that coal bed methane activity and oil and gas activity be conducted in a responsible manner within the proposed district,” according to the petition.
The petition states it “seeks to maintain the rural residential and agricultural character of the proposed district,” and is in the public interest or convenience “because oil and gas activity, without local regulation, threatens substantial adverse impacts within the proposed district.” It goes on to list potential risks to various aspects of the area, including to the quality and quantity of surface and ground water, to the county roads and bridges, and to private property.
A CIZ District would be over-seen by a seven-member planning and zoning commission. As is outlined in Montana law, the members would include the three county commissioners, the clerk and recorder, an additional appointed county official, and two appointed residents of the district.
Accompanying the petition are more than 600 signatures from residents of the 80,000 acre proposed district.

As several Beartooth Front Group (BFG) members explained at the March 9 informational meeting between the petitioning BFG and the county commissioners, the petition is in no way calling for a ban of oil and gas activity, but rather for regulations similar to those suggested by the American Petroleum Institute, the national trade association representing the country’s oil and natural gas industries.
These “rules of engagement” would ensure that both the land owners as well as incoming companies would have clear expectations when entering into an agreement dealing with gas or oil activity.
A letter of support by a resident in the Buffalo Jump area was read at the meeting that describes the regulations in this way: “Extraction is part of our county and state, and as long as the games are not one-sided, both oil and gas companies and residents can co-exist and both be winners.”
BFG hopes to balance the rich tradition of agriculture and outdoor recreation in the area with the economic opportunities gas and oil development can provide for landowners.
Several members of BFG were also involved with the Good Neighbor Agreement with the Stillwater Mining Company, ensuring responsible environmental practices as the mine extracts resources.
As described in the March 9 meeting, the catalyst for the petition was a 2013 announcement by the Energy Corporation of America (ECA) of plans to expand in the area.
According to the Oct. 24, 2013, ECA press release, the company was planning to use horizontal drilling technology to extract gas and oil from formations in Carbon and Stillwater counties.
Concerned citizens in the Nye region gathered, had discussions, and in 2014 BFG formed and decided to move forward with the CIZ petition, dated Sept. 12.
According to members, they met with the county commissioners for guidance regarding the signature gathering process, but no guidance was offered. As Commissioner Maureen Davey clarified at the meeting, this process is new to the commissioners office as well because petitions are not a common occurrence in Stillwater County.
Due to the lack of official guidance, BFG gathered what information they could find within Montana law, and forged ahead with the process.
Members contacted landowners and held informational meetings to gather the signatures of the necessary 60 percent of affected landowners.
In November of 2015, the petition was presented to the commissioners for the first time.
As March 2016 approached, BFG learned that more information (notarized affidavits) was needed for certain signatures to be validated. This requirement affected about one-third of the total signatures gathered.
Heidi Stadel, the newly elected county clerk and recorder, did research into the process to learn of petition protocols in other counties in order to create a protocol for BFG’s petition. Taking the lack of initial guidance into consideration, she granted the group an extension to change the affected signatures.
Three members of BFG became certified notaries to aid with the process.
The extended deadline for the petition came Jan. 9 of this year. Stadel granted the petitioners a requested 30-day extension to finish gathering updated signatures.
On Feb. 9, BFG formally submitted the newest version of the petition. Following this, the signature verification process began.
At the March 28 commissioners’ agenda meeting, the commissioners announced that they had uncovered an existing CIZ (from 1979) that includes some of the proposed land for the Beartooth Front District.
Unsure of the legal ramification of zoning over an existing zone, all actions on the petition were postponed.

Two important deadlines were set at the April 11 commissioners meeting – the signature cut-off date and the signature verification deadline.
Last Friday was the end of the signature updating period. While BFG members were worried that some land would change hands as the verification process occurs, a definitive end to the initial phase of the petition proceedings was needed.
Aug. 9, six months after the petition’s formal submittal, is the tentative deadline for Stadel’s signature verification process.
Currently, the Clerk and Recorder’s Office is inundated with the preparations for three upcoming elections. Stadel, with her staff of two, will work to validate the 600-plus signatures as soon as they are able.
The validation process includes finding a tax code and deed for each piece of land in the 80,000-acre proposed district. The name on the title must then be matched to the signature on the petition.
By August, the commissioners will be able to make a decision about the legality of over-lapping zoning. At that time it will also be clear whether the petition had the correct number of valid signatures to move forward with the process.