Media Coverage of Beartooth Front Coalition efforts to preserve landowner rights

The efforts of landowners in southern Stillwater County to guarantee long-term protection of their land has generated a lot of media coverage locally and across Montana over the last several weeks. The reason is clear — the landowners’ lawsuit against the County has long-term implications not only locally, but for landowner rights across the State.

In addition to this coverage, local residents deluged the Commissioners with dozens of letters opposing their position on citizen-initiated zoning.

This post provides links to published articles and letters.

News Coverage
March 22 – Stillwater County News, CIZ petitioners take on proposed petition guidelines
by Mikaela Koski (pdf1, pdf2)
“Your proposed policy does not enable ‘We the People’ in this room, but instead insures that we will never have a voice in your government. – Charles Sangmeister”

March 7 – Preserve the Beartooth Front, Stillwater residents give Commissioners an earful on proposed policy (video)
“As you would expect, people took the opportunity to express their indignation, not only about the proposed policy, but about the pattern of excuses, inaction, and delay that had brought them to this point.”

March 6 – Last Best News, Residents pan county’s proposed zoning guidelines
by Linda Halstead-Acharya
“Bill Peterson of Nye …pointed out what seemed obvious to everyone present. ‘I thought it was interesting that there were no proponents, he said.”

March 1 – Stillwater County News, Citizen Initiated Zoning Petition Battle Reaches Court, by Mikaela Koski
“(The)  lawsuit…argues that the group was never told, throughout the 3-year petition process, that the signatures of mineral rights owners would be necessary for the petition.”

February 28 – Billings Gazette, Petition to regulate oil, gas development in south-central Montana was unfairly denied, landowners’ lawsuit claims, by Matt Hudson
“(N)o other citizen-initiated zoning district in Montana has required signatures from mineral rights holders. Missoula and Ravalli counties both have dozens of these districts.”
Carried in Helena Independent Record and the Missoulian.

February 27, Yellowstone Public Radio,  Residents Suing Stillwater County, Concern Over Possible Oil Drilling Near Bearthooth Front.
“’It’s not unusual to be working with a mineral extractor or an oil extractor to come up with ways to address problems that might arise,’ says Bill Hand of Nye.”

2/27/18 – Last Best News, Citizens Sue Stillwater County Officials Over Zoning Issue,
by Ed Kemmick
“Stillwater County residents had used citizen-initiated zoning once before, when the Stillwater Mine was being developed almost 40 years ago. The district established then was used to regulate mining activities and later led to the legally binding Good Neighbor Agreement between the mine and area residents.”

2/8/18 – Stillwater County News, Petition Issue Pointing Toward Litigation
by Mikaela Koski
“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”

2/1/18 – Stillwater County News, Petition Deemed Invalid, Possible Lawsuit Against County in the Works by Mikaela Koski
“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. 

Guest Opinions
March 7 – Billings Gazette, Stillwater commission forces lawsuit to protect our rights
by David Katz and Lana Sangmeister, Nye
“In denying the petition in January, the commissioners turned their backs on years of grass roots effort by local taxpayers trying to protect their land. Their decision jeopardizes the rights of landowners across Montana.”

Letters to the Editor
March 15 – Stillwater County News, Ex-Commissioner Weighs in on CIZ
by Dennis Hoyem, Nye
“I asked the Commissioners to suspend ‘political expediency’ in their information gathering and deliberations because of its typical and frequent shortcomings.”

March 8 – Stillwater County News, “What Tangled Webs We Weave…
By Dan Burkhart, Fishtail
“Let’s insist they do the fair thing and create a zoning district more than a majority of residents in the area want. Let’s not let extractive resource companies treat us like third world populations where the potential for profit outweighs the public good.”

February 8 – Stillwater County News, “Disappointing Petition Decision
By Frank Willett, Fishtail
“Our commissioners put a ridiculous task in front of the petitioners in order to deny the petition. They apparently view petitioners as a force to oppose rather than citizens to help.”

February 8 – Stillwater County News, “Stillwater Commissioners Turn Backs on Beartooth Landowners” by David Katz, Nye
“Beartooth Front landowners are trying to establish reasonable regulations on oil and gas drilling to preserve their community for the future….It’s hard to imagine why the Commissioners want to spend precious resources to prove a fantasy legal theory in court against (them).”

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Last chance to tell the Stillwater Commissioners how you feel about proposed zoning policy

Writing letters makes a difference.

We saw it last week when the BLM backed off on a decision to sell oil leases on the Beartooth Front because of public opposition.

The Stillwater County Commissioners have decided to rewrite Montana state law to keep landowners from establishing reasonable protections from drilling. They need to hear that you think that’s a bad idea.

Tuesday, March 13 is the last day they will accept email comments.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Send an email to commission@stillwater.mt.gov
  2. Tell the commissioners that you oppose their proposed policy on citizen initiated zoning. Your letter doesn’t need to be detailed or brilliantly written. Here are some points you might want to make:
    1. I oppose the proposed policy on citizen initiated zoning.
    2. It is bad policy. It is impossible for any citizen group to follow it.
    3. It was developed without input from local groups that have worked on zoning
    4. It opposes the will of landowners
  3. Be sure to send it by Tuesday, March 13.

This will only take a few minutes of your time and it will make a difference. Elected officials react when they know there is strong public opposition to their policies.

If you need more information:

Watch video of last week’s public hearing on the policy, in which 18 people spoke against the policy, and nobody spoke in favor of it:

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Stillwater residents give County Commissioners an earful on proposed policy (video)

What occurred yesterday in Columbus is what happens when elected officials ignore the people who pay their salaries.

After four years of stonewalling the hundreds of landowners who petitioned to set up a citizen initiated zone along the Beartooth Front, the Commissioners held a public hearing on Tuesday on a proposed policy that would forever block any group from trying to do the same thing.

Rancher Noel Keogh asks Commissioner Mark Crago whether he knows who owns the mineral rights under his land. Crago admits he doesn’t.

As you would expect, people took the opportunity to express their indignation, not only about the proposed policy, but about the pattern of excuses, inaction, and delay that had brought them to this point.

In a packed room, speaker after speaker stepped forward to express dissatisfaction with the Commissioners’ proposed policy, their unprecedented decision to require the signatures of mineral rights holders in a zoning petition, and their general unwillingness to accept the will of the people who are trying to protect a land they love.

Not a single speaker spoke in favor of the proposed policy.

Davey

It was a huge disappointment that Maureen Davey, one of the three commissioners, did not show up for the hearing because of a previously-scheduled meeting. Many in the crowd remarked on the continuing disrespect that this showed for the work that residents and landowners have done over the last several years. There was no urgency to the timing of the hearing, which could have been held at any time all three commissioners were available. As one attendee said, “This is why we’re in a courtroom instead of a meeting room figuring out the details of our zone.”

Linda Halstead-Acharya over at Last Best News did an excellent job of summarizing the points made by individual speakers. I recommend you take a look.

If you want to get a flavor of the emotion and shared commitment that is driving these folks to protect their land for the long term, you can watch a video of the entire hearing below. Tip of the hat to Cameron Clevidence for shooting and uploading it.

There is still time to write the Commissioners to let them know how you feel. Public responses will be accepted until March 13. Address:

commission@stillwater.mt.us

Background reading:
Citizen initiated zoning, a way to restore fairness to oil and gas drilling in Montana
How to find out who owns the mineral rights to your land
Beartooth Front landowners present hundreds of signatures to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up oil and gas zoning district (with video)
Stillwater County Commissioners ignore County residents on issue after issue. This has to change.
Do mineral rights have anything to do with citizen initiated zoning in Montana?
Read the proposed citizen initiated zoning policy for Stillwater County.
Action Alert: Please contact the Stillwater County Commissioners to stop them from taking landowner rights
Breaking: Beartooth Front landowners file legal action against Stillwater Commissioners
Beartooth Front Zone update: Stillwater Commissioners turn their backs on locals who pay their salaries, support unknown outsiders

 

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Thanks to all who wrote: BLM will NOT sell leases on Beartooth Front next week

Good news for those of us working to maintain the balance between oil and gas development and the natural beauty and agricultural economy of the Beartooth Front.

Three leases in the Beartooth Foothills will not be put up for sale as planned next week, the BLM announced today. The parcels were scheduled to be part of an online auction on March 13.

Special thanks are due to those of you who wrote to the BLM last September to urge that these leases not be sold.

BLM tweet, March 5, 2018

The BLM had proposed offering 109 parcels covering nearly 63,500 acres in an online auction to be held March 12 and 13. The scattered parcels stretch across Central Montana from the Canadian border to the Wyoming state line.  The BLM has decided to defer the rights to explore for oil and gas on 26 parcels and on a portion of two additional parcels, totaling about 17,300 acres. These parcels are located near the city of Livingston, and in the foothills surrounding the Absaroka and Beartooth mountain ranges in Montana.Three parcels, totaling about 2100 acres, were part of the planned auction. All were in southern Stillwater County.

The remaining 83 parcels covering nearly 46,200 acres in Montana are being offered for oil and gas leasing through a competitive online auction. Information on the parcels including details on how to register in advance as a bidder is available at EnergyNet.com.

Map of deferrals in the March lease sale. Click on map for more detail.

The BLM awards oil and gas leases for a period of 10 years, and for as long thereafter as there is production in paying quantities. The revenue from the sale of federal leases, as well as the 12.5 percent royalties collected from the production of those leases, is shared between the federal government and the states.

Click on map to download BLM parcel maps for potential lease sales

Lease sales
Leases on BLM land are put up for sale when there is a request from a company that wants to exploit mineral resources. The process is governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions.

To meet NEPA requirements federal agencies prepare a detailed statement known as an environmental assessment. EPA reviews and comments on environmental assessments prepared by other federal agencies, maintains a national filing system for all assessments, and assures that its own actions comply with NEPA.

The environmental assessment involves two steps:

  1. Public Scoping: This step involves the community in determining whether there are environmental impacts that need to be considered. These impacts might include:
  • Significant natural resources such as ecosystems and threatened and endangered species;
  • Commercial and recreational fisheries;
  • Current recreational uses of the land and waterways;
  • effects on water users;
  • Effects of potential controls on current lake and waterway uses such as flood risk management, commercial and recreational navigation, recreation, water supply, hydropower and conveyance of effluent from wastewater treatment plants and other industries; and
  • Statutory and legal responsibilities relative to use of land and water.

2. Preliminary environmental assessment: Public review of preliminary environmental assessment. This process takes 30 days before the final environmental assessment.

More information: ACTION ALERT: Please write by September 20 to keep BLM from selling oil leases in Stillwater County

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Make your voice heard TODAY. Tell the Stillwater County Commissioners how you feel about landowner rights

Please make your voice heard.

The Stillwater County Commissioners will be holding a public hearing to consider their proposed policy for citizen initiated zoning. The proposed policy is not a policy at all, but a thinly-veiled attempt to keep any landowner group from ever taking advantage of state law.

We need your help to keep Commissioners from taking away landowner rights and neutering state law regarding citizen initiated zoning.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Attend the hearing on Tuesday, March 6 at 9:30am at the Stillwater County Courthouse, 400 E. 3rd Ave. N in Columbus. Speak up and make your voice heard. Let the Commissioners see that the public is opposed to this policy. (View map for directions)
  2. Write to let the Commissioners know how you feel. Possible talking points are here, but your letter doesn’t have to be elegant. Just say that the proposed policy on citizen initiated zoning is not a policy but an attempt to take away landowners’ rights, and that you disagree with the proposal.

Per the public notice, written comments must be sent to:
Stillwater County Commissioners
P.O. Box 970
Columbus, MT 59019.

You can also email the Commissioners at commission@stillwater.mt.gov, but it is important to send via US mail to make sure your voice is counted.

Find out more:
Read the proposed policy.
Action Alert: Please contact the Stillwater County Commissioners to stop them from taking landowner rights
Stillwater County Beartooth Zone: The Commissioners’ position is not only illegal, it is completely undemocratic
Breaking: Beartooth Front landowners file legal action against Stillwater Commissioners
Beartooth Front Zone update: Stillwater Commissioners turn their backs on locals who pay their salaries, support unknown outsiders

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BREAKING: Beartooth Front landowners file legal action against Stillwater Commissioners

The Beartooth Front landowners who have been working since 2014 to set up a citizen-initiated zone in southern Stillwater County have filed a legal action against the Stillwater County Commissioners and the County Clerk and Recorder. The suit comes after years of inaction, delays, and excuses by the Commissioners.

The landowners made the decision to sue reluctantly, but felt they had no choice because the Commissioners have  ignored the will of the overwhelming majority of landowners in the proposed zone. Over 550 of them petitioned in November, 2015 to set up a zone in accordance with Montana law. Furthermore, the County’s decision to include mineral interests as relevant to a land use petition flies in the face of Montana history. If it is allowed to stand, this decision would make it impossible for landowners anywhere in Montana to join together to create CIZ districts to protect their property and their ways of life.

The proposed zone is located here. Petitioners want to preserve this land for future generations.

The lawsuit asks the court to do several things:

  1. Issue a “writ of mandamus,” which will force the County to follow its own rules and certify that the petitioners have achieved the 60% of signatures required to move the petition forward, as the Clerk and Recorder determined last August.
  2. Make a declaratory ruling regarding citizen-initiated zoning that states that Montana law does not require any mineral interests to be counted toward the 60% signature threshold.
  3. Issue a temporary restraining order that prohibits the Commissioners from adopting any policy regarding citizen-initiated zoning that includes mineral interests while the lawsuit is being considered.
  4. Bar the Commissioners from retroactively requiring the petitioners to get the signatures of any mineral owners.
  5. Require the Commissioners to pay the landowners’ relevant legal costs and court fees.

The Commissioners will have 30 days to respond.

More to come.

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ACTION ALERT: Please contact the Stillwater County Commissioners to stop them from taking landowner rights

Not content just to block Beartooth Front landowners from setting regulations that would protect their own properties, the Stillwater County Commissioners have devised a policy that will forever keep any local landowners from exercising their rights under Montana state law. The policy will be voted on after a public hearing on March 6.

The Commissioners tried to sneak this policy past the public on January 24, but were stopped when local landowners forced them to follow their own policy on public notice.

Action Alert: Please write or call the Stillwater County Commissioners (contact information below) to let them know how you feel about their plans to prevent local landowners from protecting their land under Montana law.

Background
Four years ago Beartooth Front landowners became concerned about oil company plans to “bring a little bit of the Bakken” to this beautiful area. They decided to use existing state law to establish reasonable regulations to protect their properties from the dangers of drilling — water, soil, and air contamination, and the costs of drilling that normally fall on landowners — road repair, spills, and so on. Their goal was not to ban drilling, but to make sure that there was a reasonable balance between oil extraction and the agricultural and ranching economy of the area.

This land needs to be protected..

As required by law, they developed a petition and got the overwhelming support of the landowners in the area. They sought the advice and support of the County Commissioners, who refused to work with them or provide information on the standards they would use to validate the signatures.

It took the County Clerk nearly two years to validate the signatures after they were first submitted, but finally, in August, 2017, she determined that the petitioners had achieved the 60% of signatures required by law.

But then, after determining that they had achieved the legal standard, the Commissioners came up with a new wrinkle — they said the petitioners needed to get not only 60% of the surface owners, but 60% of the mineral rights owners as well. This is an impossible standard.

They then rejected the zone. Four years of landowner work down the drain.

The landowners have promised to sue the County to obtain their rights.

The new policy
This wasn’t enough for the Commissioners. They have now created a new policy that governs future zones of this type and makes it impossible for any new zone to ever be created.

The Commissioners have asked for public comment on the policy. This is where you come in. Let them know how feel. You can read the proposed new policy by clicking here.

Here are some points you may want to make:

  1. This is not a policy. It is just a way to keep landowners from exercising their rights under the law. Examples:
          1. Under “Required Steps, #2, the proposed policy states, “Final list of real property owners must be obtained via an ownership report from a Title Company for all legal descriptions.” This is impossible. No title company in Stillwater County or Billings will provide such a list.
          2. Under Recommended Steps, #5, the proposed policy states, “Develop a list of affected property owners….Suggested places for this information:  County GIS, Montana Cadastral, or Clerk and Recorder’s Office.” None of these places has such a list. You might be able to develop a list from information in the Clerk and Recorder’s Office, but it would require individual research for each property back to the point in history when surface rights were separated from mineral rights. This work requires the services of a titles abstractor, a highly trained professional. Abstractors I have talked to estimate that a job the size of the current zone would cost $160,000 – $250,000. This is not a reasonable standard for landowners to protect their own rights.
  2. The proposed policy is completely undemocratic. Under the policy, a large ranch that has been homesteaded by one family since 1910 counts as one property. A small vacation property with 32 subsurface mineral owners counts as 33 properties. In other words, somebody whose family has ranched in Stillwater County for over a hundred years has 3% as much voice as random mineral holders.
  3. In making this policy the Commissioners have decided to protect the rights of unknown outsiders over the rights of the people who pay their salaries and voted them into office. The policy gives more voice to mineral owners who pay no taxes than it does to people who pay property taxes, contribute to the local economy, and have a long-term interest in the preservation of the land.
  4. There is no basis in Montana law for this policy. Since laws allowing citizen-initiated zoning were passed 65 years ago, there have been at least 111 such zones enacted all over the state. Not a single one has ever required the approval of mineral owners.
  5. It is impossible for the County Clerk to determine the percentage of signatures validated. To do so she would have to duplicate the research discussed in 1(b) above.
  6. Meeting the requirements of the policy is way too expensive for ordinary people. In addition to the huge cost mentioned above, petitioners have to pay large costs to surveyors to create a map of the land, which is unnecessary. The County charges petitioners to send certified mail notifications to all petitioners, which could be $15,000 or more for a zone like the current one. They also have to pay a fee or $4 per signature. For 1000 signatures, this would be an additional $4,000.
  7. The County just makes up regulations to make it impossible for petitioners to meet the requirements of the law. As an example, they say in “Required Steps” #3 that if a notary is used, “(t)he Notary may not be related to anyone in the affected proposed zoning district, may not be an individual named or a real property owner from within the affected proposed zoning district or cannot be an individual or real property owner that directly benefits from the passage of the proposed zoning district.  Please see current Montana Notary Handbook for notary guidelines.” This is nonsense. If you read the Montana Notary Handbook, there is no such regulation, and the requirement to have people go long distances to get their signatures notarized makes getting a high percentage of signatures impossible.

Let them hear from you
Please — you can make a difference by calling them out on this nonsense. Here how to reach them:
Dennis Shupak, Commissioner, Chair (District 1)
Term expires: 2020
406-322-8010
dshupak@stillwater.mt.gov
Photo: Alpine Images


Mark Crago, Commissioner (District 2)
Term expires: 2022
406-322-8010
mcrago@stillwater.mt.gov
Photo: Marlo Pronovost, Stillwater County News

Maureen Davey, Commissioner (District 3)
Term Expires: 2018
406-322-8010
mdavey@stillwater.mt.gov
Photo: Alpine Images


County Attorney Nancy Rohde
Term expires: 2018
406-322-4333
nrohde@stillwater.mt.gov

 

More information
Beartooth Front landowners present hundreds of signatures to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up zoning district

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A limerick for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt

News item: It seems that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt regularly flies first class or on charters for routine business. The Washington Post reported that, during a period of only a few days last June, Pruitt had cost taxpayers over $90,000 in travel expenses flying from Washington, DC to New York City to Cincinnati, and then to Rome.

According to the Post,

Federal regulations state that government travelers are required to “exercise the same care in incurring expenses that a prudent person would exercise if traveling on personal business . . . and therefore, should consider the least expensive class of travel that meets their needs.” Agencies are allowed to authorize first-class travel in rare instances, such as a flight of 14 hours or more, a medical disability or when “exceptional security circumstances” mean “use of coach class accommodations would endanger your life or government property.”

Scott Pruitt

Apparently Pruitt uses the “exceptional security” exemption all the time.

After being silent for several days, the EPA responded by revealing that Pruitt needs the extra security to “avoid confrontations with angry individuals on planes and in airports.” Seems people regularly come up to him and yell things like, “‘Scott Pruitt, you’re f—ing up the environment,” as someone did in the Atlanta airport last October.

Wonder why this has never been a problem for previous EPA administrators? Not to make light of his plight, but seems like he could probably save us some money if he’d quit f—ing up the environment.

Out of sympathy for Mr. Pruitt, I offer the following limerick:

The EPA’s Pruitt, alas,
Could only fly up in first class.
In coach class, he knew,
Some boor such as you
Would probably call him an ass.

Related:
Trump’s EPA pick makes his feelings on climate change clear
Missoulian: Environmental group sues Montana AG over ‘fracking’ documents

And here’s the kind of incendiary tweet that makes people want to curse Pruitt out:

Posted in Politics and History | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Stillwater County Beartooth Zone: The Commissioners’ position is not only illegal, it is completely undemocratic

The Stillwater County Commissioners seem dead set on fighting County taxpayers in court to protect the rights of outsiders. No county in the history of Montana has ever taken their position, it is untested in court, and it is completely undemocratic and unfair.

To see how undemocratic the Commissioners’ position is, let’s look at two actual properties in the proposed zone. Names have been changed, but these properties actually exist.

Bill’s ranch counts as one property

Property 1: Bill has lived in Fishtail all his life. His great grandfather homesteaded his 1500 acre ranch beginning in 1910, and his family has lived there ever since. The ranch passed down to Bill and his wife Margaret when his dad died in 1978, and they have willed it to their daughter to make sure it stays in the family. The family has kept the minerals intact for the entire period they have owned the ranch, so Bill has the sole mineral rights.

Bill is not opposed to allowing drilling on his property. The royalties would be welcome, but he is concerned about the possibility of permanent damage. He knows that spills are a natural part of drilling — he found out from the Montana Board of Oil and Gas that there were 91 incidents in Montana in 2016 alone. Toxic spills could harm his livestock, permanently damage his water supply, and render portions of his property unusable.

He signed the zoning petition to make sure that regulations are put in place to require operators to follow industry best practices for water, soil, and air testing. If that happens, he’d be willing to consider leasing his land. If not, he figures it’s just not worth the risk.

According to the standards the Stillwater Commissioners have put in place, Bill’s ranch counts as one property.

The Jensens’ vacation cabin counts as 33 properties

Property 2: The Jensen family lives in Billings. They bought a vacation cabin on a ½ acre plot of land on the Stillwater in Nye in 2012. They love to visit, but it’s hard to get there more than a couple of times every summer.

They don’t know much about oil drilling, but they signed the petition because they are concerned that truck traffic on Stillwater River Road will tear up the dirt and make it unusable.

They have read that a single well can require 400-800 or more truck trips, and wells are frequently grouped together, so it’s easy to imagine serious damage to a dirt road. They know that the County would have to pay for that damage, and remember how it took the Commissioners over two years to scrape together the budget to clean up a rock slide that closed the road. Zone regulations would require operators to pay for any infrastructure damage they cause.

Before and after — what fracking in winter weather did to a dirt road in West Virginia

But here’s the undemocratic part. The Jensens’ mineral rights were severed from their surface rights decades ago. They are now split among 32 owners. According to the Commissioners’ policy, the Jensens’ cabin counts as 33 properties compared to Bill’s one property!

No matter how County Attorney Nancy Rohde and the Commissioners try to spin it, there is no principle of law or justice in the United States of America in which the Jensens’ half-acre vacation cabin should have 33 times the voice of Bill’s 1500-acre ranch. Bill’s family will probably be here for another hundred years, and will have to deal with the consequences of unregulated drilling. The Commissioners think Bill’s opinion should count 3% as much as a bunch of speculators holding lottery tickets for a few hundred dollars worth of oil royalties that will probably never amount to anything.

Feel free to let the Commissioners know how you feel about this nonsense.
Dennis Shupak, Commissioner, Chair (District 1)
Term expires: 2020
406-322-8010
dshupak@stillwater.mt.gov
Photo: Alpine Images


Mark Crago, Commissioner (District 2)
Term expires: 2022
406-322-8010
mcrago@stillwater.mt.gov
Photo: Marlo Pronovost, Stillwater County News

Maureen Davey, Commissioner (District 3)
Term Expires: 2018
406-322-8010
mdavey@stillwater.mt.gov
Photo: Alpine Images


County Attorney Nancy Rohde
Term expires: 2018
406-322-4333
nrohde@stillwater.mt.gov

 

Posted in Community Organization | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Beartooth Front zone update: Stillwater Commissioners turn their backs on locals who pay their salaries; support unknown outsiders

A portion of this post will appear in the Opinion section of the Stillwater County News on Thursday, February 8.

By rejecting a petition of over 550 landowners to establish the Beartooth Front Zoning District, 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% 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 that are consistent with county policies, they approve them.

Rohde.

Not in Stillwater County, where officials have decided to invent new law to keep landowners from exercising their rights. Last August, County Attorney Nancy Rohde notified the petitioners that they had reached the required 60% of signatures. But then County officials decided to get clever. In rejecting the zone this week, 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% of the surface owners, but ALSO 60% of the owners of mineral rights beneath the surface.

An impossible requirement
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.

To put a finer point on it, mineral rights holders fall into several categories. Some of them own surface land within the proposed zone. They were already included in the petition process and had the opportunity to decide whether or not to sign. Some live in Stillwater County outside the proposed zone but own minerals inside the zone. They can participate in the process by attending public hearings or serveing on commissions. The only ones who can’t participate are outsiders. They don’t live in Stillwater County, don’t pay taxes there, and will never know if a toxic spill kills livestock or if Stillwater River Road gets torn up by truck traffic. And they’ll have no reason to care.

These are the people and companies the Commissioners have decided to support instead of the local landowners who pay their salaries. Does that make sense to you?

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.

Petitioners want to protect Stillwater County for the long term. Photo: Gage Peterson

A review
So let’s review what happened here. The Stillwater County Commissioners received a petition signed by the people who put them in office and pay to provide the County’s budget. The petition was carefully constructed to meet all legal requirements to establish a citizen initiated zone, in accordance with law and practice in Montana for the last 65 years. They proposed to do it in a way that would protect the long term health of the community without depriving mineral rights holders of their rightful opportunity to pursue their mineral interests. Even though the Commissioners threw continuous hurdles and roadblocks at them, the petitioners persisted. And they got it done with the overwhelming support of their neighbors. The County Clerk and the County Attorney verified it. Mark Crago, one of the Commissioners, even involved himself in the counting.

Yet the Commissioners decided to come up with all kinds of ways to block the zone, and ultimately told local taxpayers that they were going to interpret the law in a new and novel way, differently from the way the Commissioners in Missoula, Ravalli, Yellowstone, and Gallatin counties ever had; differently from past Stillwater County Commissioners. And they’re doing this to protect the rights of people who don’t live in the County, who don’t have any long-term interest in the health of the community.

They didn’t have to do this. They could have acted as Montana county commissioners have acted before them, held a public hearing, and set up the zone. That’s what most elected officials would do. They would meet with their constituents, try to understand what they wanted, and help them get it done. These Commissioners have never done that. After three years not one of them has a clue what regulations the petitioners want to put in place. They just know that, whatever it is, they don’t want it.

As a result, the Commissioners are going to wind up wasting precious County resources trying to defend a fantasy legal theory in court against the local landowners who put them in office and pay their salaries. Why are they doing this? Got me. 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 outsiders who want to make sure Montana landowners can’t exercise their rights. Time will tell.

The petitioners have no choice but to go to court to find out.

Action steps
We may be asking you to take action in several steps as this plays out over time. The Stillwater landowners remain committed to setting up their zone, no matter what it takes.

The first thing you can do is contact the County Commissioners and County Attorney to let them know you don’t want them to waste County resources to support outside interests. Perhaps we can convince them to give up their folly and support the petitioners. Here’s how to reach them:

Dennis Shupak, Commissioner, Chair (District 1)
Term expires: 2020
406-322-8010
dshupak@stillwater.mt.gov
Photo: Alpine Images


Mark Crago, Commissioner (District 2)
Term expires: 2022
406-322-8010
mcrago@stillwater.mt.gov
Photo: Marlo Pronovost, Stillwater County News

Maureen Davey, Commissioner (District 3)
Term Expires: 2018
406-322-8010
mdavey@stillwater.mt.gov
Photo: Alpine Images


County Attorney Nancy Rohde
Term expires: 2018
406-322-4333
nrohde@stillwater.mt.gov

 

Find out more
Citizen initiated zoning, a way to restore fairness to oil and gas drilling in Montana
How to find out who owns the mineral rights to your land
Beartooth Front landowners present hundreds of signatures to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up oil and gas zoning district (with video)
Stillwater County Commissioners ignore County residents on issue after issue. This has to change.
Do mineral rights have anything to do with citizen initiated zoning in Montana?

Watch this video created by local petitioners:

 

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