Latest developments in Beartooth Front Coalition lawsuit against Stillwater County

Stillwater County’s out of state law firm wasted no time in responding to the Beartooth Front Coalition’s lawsuit against Stillwater County by filing a motion to dismiss the suit. The petitioners have responded, and the case is in motion. This post summarizes the state of the case so far, with links to the court documents.

The case is assinged to Red Lodge Judge Blair Jones. Billings Gazette photo.

The lawsuit: A review
In 2013, in response to an announcement from a West Virginia company that it planned to “bring a little bit of the Bakken” to the Beartooth Front, local landowners began working on collecting signatures to form a citizen-initiated zone. The goal of the zone was not to stop drilling, but to enact common sense regulations that would protect water, soil, air, and the ranching/agricultural economy in southern Stillwater County. The process defined in Montana law is that the landowners must collect the signatures of 60% of the real property owners in the area and present them to the Commissioners, who will form a zone if they determine “the public interest or convenience” requires it.

The landowners sought advice from the Commissioners, who refused to engage or provide guidelines for collecting signatures. In November, 2015 they presented the signatures of what they believed were 60% of the landowners to the County Clerk. After some initial feedback from the Clerk they had to redo about 100 signatures. They did that, and resubmitted signatures in February, 2017. The County Attorney provided an explanation on how the signatures would be counted, and in August, 2017 they notified the landowners that they had exceeded the 60% threshold.

All’s well that ends well? Not so fast. The County Attorney, after discovering that the petitioners had reached the threshold, decided that “real property owners” meant not only the surface owners, but the mineral owners too. Her reasoning ignored the fact that there are at least 111 existing citizen-initiated zones in Montana, and not a single one has ever required the signatures of mineral rights holders. Finally, in January, 2018, the Commissioners accepted the County Attorney’s reasoning and rejected the zone.

The landowners sued in February, 2018, arguing that requiring the signatures of minerals owners is a misapplication of the law.

Commissioners file for dismissal of the suit
On May 1 Budd-Falen, the high-priced Cheyenne law firm, filed a motion to dismiss the suit. They did not respond to the question of whether the Commissioners were justified in requiring the signatures of minerals owners, but instead claimed that the zone itself was an illegal application of the law. Their argument was twofold:

  1. Stillwater County has no legal ability to regulate oil and gas activity. Montana law reserves that function exclusively to the Montana Board of Gas Conservation.
  2. The reference materials submitted by the petitioners when they originally submtted their petition in November, 2015 included provisions that fall outside the purview of counties.

For these reasons, they claimed in their brief, the County cannot legally even consider the petition to form the zone, and for that reason the suit should be dismissed.

The County’s claims in their motion to dismiss are nothing new. They are straight out of the oil and gas industry playbook. Their argument goes like this: in Montana, only the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation has the right to regulate oil and gas; counties do not have the right to do so. As a result, the reference materials the landowners put forward when they submitted their petition are illegal.

We saw the same argument in the recent Carbon County citizen-initiated zoning case, and the Commissioners there had the good sense to dismiss it. The letters filed by two attorneys involved summarize the argument, and the reasons why it is not correct. Recommended reading if you’re interested in the details of this case.

The area of the proposed zone along the Beartooth Front. What the landowners are trying to preserve

Petitioners response
On May 14 the Beartooth Front landowners filed their response, requesting a hearing and asking the judge to dismiss the County’s motion. A summary of their argument:

  1. Montana law does not preclude counties from regulating land use related to oil and gas activity. There are specific areas in which counties may not establish regulations — grazing rights, timber rights, injection wells, for example — but there is no specific prohibition for land use related to oil and gas. In fact, in their Permit to Drill Form, the Board of Oil and Gas specifically asks whether local permits are required (#6 on reverse).
  2. Of the existing citizen-initiated zones in Montana, several have been approved that do exactly what the Beartooth Front landowners propose to do — regulate land use related to oil and gas extraction. Examples include the Bridger Canyon, Bozeman Pass, Reese Creek, and South Cottonwood zones in Gallatin County, which have all been operational since the mid-2000s.
  3. The reference materials cited as illegal by Stillwater County are not regulations at all. Only the Commissioners have the power to establish a zone and approve regulations. Since they have not done so, the materials suggested by the petitioners are just suggestions, not regulations.

Landowners confident
The Commissioners’ motion to dismiss is just a sideshow. Landowners are confident that Judge Jones will dismiss this motion, as it has no basis in Montana law. Perhaps it does in Wyoming.

Once this motion is dismissed the Judge can move on to the real issue in the case, which is the Commissioners’ decision to require the signatures of mineral rights owners.

Stay tuned…

Download the court documents:
Landowners original lawsuit (filed Febuary 23, 2018)
County’s motion for dismissal (filed May 1, 2018)
Landowners response and request for hearing (filed May 14, 2018)

 

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Why is Stillwater County spending tens of thousands of dollars on high priced out of state lawyers?

The Stillwater County Commissioners have retained a high-priced out-of-state law firm to defend a lawsuit filed against them by Beartooth Front landowners. Over 60% of the landowners in the area have petitioned the County to set up a citizen-initiated zone to regulate oil and gas drilling, in accordance with Montana law.

Why would they hire a firm from out of state? And why would they hire a firm with rates much higher than would be charged by an expert Montana firm? It’s impossible to tell for sure. There has been no public notice of any contractual relationship with an outside firm. A look at recent Commissioner agendas and meeting minutes makes no mention of a contract.

But a look at the facts shows that the Commissioners have gone out of their way not only to deprive local landowners of their rights, but to establish a precedent that will end citizen-initiated zoning in Montana. In doing so they will pave the way for the oil and gas industry to operate without regard for local communities. This agenda dovetails perfectly with the national agenda of the oil and gas industry.

Not just any law firm
There are certainly plenty of local resources available to Stillwater County. There is an elected County Attorney paid for by taxpayers who has been representing the County on this matter to date. Taxpayers also pay for membership in the Montana Association of Counties (MACo), which has provided legal advice on zoning in the past. And there are plenty of attorneys in the state who specialize in zoning and land use.

Karen Budd-Falen

But the firm they hired is not just any old expensive out-of-state law firm. The firm is Budd-Falen, located in Cheyenne, Wyoming, one of the preeminent property rights law firms in the country. They are famous for representing ranchers in disputes with federal land agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They consistently oppose regulation and advocate for the disposal of federal land. Karen Budd-Falen, the lead attorney for the firm, has achieved a national profile by taking unusual, sometimes extreme landowner rights cases in opposition to federal agencies.

She has been prominently mentioned as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s top choice to become Director of the Bureau of Land Management  (BLM). Zinke has consistently advocated for the sale of public lands to private interests and opening them up to oil development. As a Congressman, he voted for a House bill that would allow state leaders to manage some federal parcels, and later for a bill that would change accounting to make it easier to sell public lands. In March of this year, as Interior Secretary, Zinke made the decision to shrink Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by two million acres to open it up for oil and coal extraction. As we have seen, the Trump Administration has dramatically increased the number of oil and gas leases on BLM lands  over the last year.

There has not been a BLM director since Trump took office, but the possible appointment of Budd-Falen would fit right in with the Trump/Zinke plans to dismantle the BLM and open public lands to oil exploration, in the same way Trump is attempting to destroy the EPA by putting it in the hands of Scott Pruitt.

The cases that have propelled Budd-Falen to fame have involved taking up the cause of opening public property to private ownership, often in extreme ways. Some examples:

  • In the 1990s, she represented the infamous Cliven Bundy and other ranchers in a dispute with the federal government over grazing land.
  • She has written controversial land use plans in New Jersey and New Mexico that describe federal control as the enemy of ranchers. In the Catron County, New Mexico plan she wrote, “The presence of federal and state lands in Catron County adversely impact privately owned lands, obstruct and weaken the institution of private property rights, threaten custom and culture, and erode and deny the right of families, communities, and county government to self determine their fate, security, and well-being through democratic means (p. A-28).”
  • When she was hired by Ravalli County to write a land use plan and invited to speak on property rights issues, her presence was so objectionable to residents of Hamilton that 100 protesters showed up in opposition.

No, this is no ordinary law firm. The Stillwater County Commissioners have purposely hired a high-priced out-of-state firm with a national reputation for advocacy for the development of natural resources on public lands to fight against local landowners.

It is ironic that the County is working with this firm to strip local landowners of their right under Montana law to petition to determine what happens on their properties.

The taxpayer cost for a two-day, 495 mile trip from Cheyenne to Columbus would be about $7000. (click to enlarge)

What is the cost to Stillwater County taxpayers?
Firms like Budd-Falen don’t come cheap, but it’s impossible to tell what their rate is because Stillwater County has not been transparent about the contract. We can get an indication of the firms rates however, because other counties have published their rate structure. When Ravalli County hired the firm in 2013, their rate structure was published online. Five years ago they paid Karen Budd-Falen a rate of $250/hour, with a slightly lower rate for attorneys with less experience. Based on general increases in legal fees over the last five years, today that top rate would be about 20% higher, or $300/hour.

Expenses — copying, mailing, mileage, hotel, meals — would be added to that. Based on the prevailing reimbursement rate for mileage, a single 990-mile round trip from Cheyenne to Columbus for a three-hour meeting would cost taxpayers $540 for mileage alone! Add in hotel, meals, and other expenses, it will cost taxpayers about $1000 in expenses for a single two-day trip from Cheyenne to Columbus. Add in the attorney fees, and three-hour meeting would cost about $7000. Had the County hired a Billings attorney, the total taxpayer cost for a three-hour meeting with round trip would be about $1550, including expenses.

Legal experts I talked to suggest that the cost of defending the Beartooth landowners’ suit at those rates would be as much as $100,000 if there is an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. That’s no small hit to the County budget.

This wasn’t necessary
The important thing to note in all of this is that the Stillwater Commissioners didn’t have to do this. The Beartooth landowners begain working on collecting signatures to petition for this zone in 2014. They repeatedly asked the Commissioners to meet with them to understand the goals of the petition and to provide guidelines for the collection of signatures, but the Commissioners refused to engage.

Then, after the petition signatures were collected and it became clear that the petitioners had achieved the overwhelming support of the landowners in the proposed district, the County Attorney established an unprecedented standard — that the petitioners needed to get the signatures not only of the surface landowners, but the underlying mineral rights owners as well. This standard is unprecedented in Montana history. There have been at least 111 citizen-initiated zones implemented all over the state, some with the exact same goals as the Beartooth Zone, and not a single one has ever required the signatures of minerals owners.

Had the Stillwater Commissioners done what county commissioners all over the state — including their predecessors in Stillwater County — have done for the last 65 years, they could have been working collaboratively with local landowners rather than fighting them in court. This could have been done at no cost to the County.

It’s important for readers to understand how easy this would be. The petitioners are not trying to ban oil and gas drilling — they are just asking the Commissioners to put regulations in place that recognize the challenges of drilling in the fragile areas along the Beartooth Front. The petitioners don’t make the regulations. The County controls the regulatory process, with input from the landowners. A collaborative process with reasonable compromise on both sides would allow drillers to drill and protect the area.

The Commissioners need to explain themselves
There is no question what the Commissioners are trying to do here. By introducing a standard that gives minerals owners the same land use rights as surface owners, and by going beyond Montana borders to hire a law firm with a national reputation for opposing regulation and advocating for the disposal of federal land, they are trying to do much more than take away the rights of local landowners. They are trying to establish a precedent that would take away the rights of all Montana landowners to determine what happens on their own properties by doing away with citizen-initiated zoning.

This agenda matches exactly the oil and gas industry’s national strategy of doing away with any local control of their activities.

The Commissioners need to explain why they made the decision to go all the way to Cheyenne to find a firm that is leading a national agenda for drilling on public land and the absence of common sense regulation that protects local water and an economy based on farming, ranching, and tourism.

Are they being influenced by outside organizations or individuals who stand to benefit economically from oil and gas development or allowing any type of local input into regulating oil and gas? Why have they turned their backs on the grass roots activism of local landowners?

And why have they failed to be transparent in revealing the nature of their contract with this firm? Taxpayers have a right to know how much they are paying, or whether they are paying the cost at all. Is some outside agency paying the cost or is the firm providing its services pro bono? If so, what is the County expected to do in return?

Citizens have a right to demand transparency from the local officials they elect and whose salaries they pay.

More information:
Beartooth Front landowners file legal action against Stillwater Commissioners
Read the lawsuit
Wyofile: Karen Budd-Falen: Provacateur or Protector
Three reasons Karen Budd-Falen is unfit to lead the Bureau of Land Management

 

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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:

Posted in Community Organization | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

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

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

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 , | 3 Comments