CIZ lawsuit takes twist

Lawsuit against county on hold as planning board reviews proposed zone
By: 
Mikaela Koski
Thursday, June 13, 2019
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The ongoing lawsuit pitting citizens against the county regarding a proposed citizen-initiated zone has been put on hold as the County Planning Board reviews zoning possibilities.

By mutual agreement, the Beartooth Front Coalition (BFC) and Stillwater County have approached the County Planning Board with the possibility of creating a county-initiated zone in the southern end of Stillwater County.

BFC’s attorney Kim Wilson explained to the News that in mid-May, he met with the county commissioners and discussion led to the referral of the issue to the planning board.

At the June 5 planning board meeting, board members discussed possible zoning options for the area in which the proposed Beartooth Front citizen-initiated zone was to be located if approved.

During the meeting, representatives of the BFC, a group of citizens who approached the county with a petition to create the Beartooth Front zone in 2017, advocated for the creation of a zone similar to their proposed zone. Such a zone would regulate, but not ban, oil and gas development in the southern end of Stillwater County.

Board members discussed the county’s possible zoning options and voted to continue researching specific applicable regulations, according to the county’s contract planner Forrest Mandeville.

Wilson was optimistic about the process, saying the county seeking to engage in a discussion is a “good sign.”

He understands the planning board process will arrive at a slightly different set of regulations than was initially included in the petition for the citizen-initiated zone, but he is hopeful the board will decide to create a county-initiated zone similar to the zone previously proposed.

Currently, Wilson noted, the BFC is compiling a potential regulatory scheme for the county zone, as requested by the planning board.

Wilson will evaluate the board’s decision once it is made to decide whether it is acceptable to the BFC. While he is hopeful the matter will be resolved through a zone created by the planning board, if the board were to deny the creation of a zone all together, Wilson would begin moving forward with court proceedings once again.

He noted that per agreement with the court, the parties involved in the lawsuit have 60 days to report back on the status of further developments. As long as progress is being made, Wilson explained, the planning board can continue to seek a solution to the zoning question.

The topic will be discussed again at the board’s next meeting on Wednesday, July 3. There is no guarantee as to what action will take place at that time. It is possible there will be a decision regarding the creation of a zone; it is equally likely the information-gathering and decision-making processes will need additional time.

When the board is ready to make a decision, the protocol will be similar to other county boards and commissions. Following discussion, a seconded motion will lead to further discussion and eventually a vote.

The board’s decision is important because, as Mandeville explained, “Pursuant to state law, the planning board must make a recommendation to the commission regarding county zoning district boundaries and regulations.”

BACKGROUND

In February 2017, following an extensive signature gathering campaign, BFC members submitted a petition to the county regarding the creation of an 83,000-acre citizen-initiated zone.

The proposed Beartooth Front Zone would create regulations that would apply to the development of oil and gas in that area of the county; it would not totally ban the development of natural resources.

The petition was deemed invalid by the county in January 2018 because it did not meet signature requirements. This decision was the catalyst for the ongoing lawsuit, originally filed in February 2018.

The county argued mineral rights owners should have been involved in the signature-gathering process, and so the petition did not meet the necessary signature threshold. The BFC said only surface landowners should be included in the signature count, so the petition did have the signatures of the required 60 percent of “affected real property owners.”

If decided by the court, the lawsuit would have provided an answer to whether or not subsurface mineral rights owners should be included in “affected real property owners” in relation to zoning petitions.

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