Belfry landowners have appealed a ruling in a lawsuit they filed to assert their rights to protect their land against the harmful effects of oil and gas drilling. The appeal will go to the Montana Supreme Court.
In February of this year, the landowners filed a legal challenge to the Carbon County Commission’s decision to reject their petition to establish the Silvertip Zoning District, which would include nearly 3,000 acres of agricultural land north of Belfry. The Commission’s rejection was based on the opposition of certain neighboring landowners under a provision of the law that the plaintiffs argue is unconstitutional. In a narrow ruling, Judge Blair Jones on July 8 dismissed the lawsuit without ruling on the merits of the landowners’ legal challenge.
Montana law empowers land- owners to initiate the develop- ment of zoning regulations for the protection of their land and community by petitioning their county commissioners to establish planning and zoning districts. “We as landowners, ranchers and farmers have a right to safeguard our property and livelihoods from the destructive impacts of oil development through citizen zoning,” said Bonnie Martinell, one of the plaintiffs. “The ability of neighboring landowners to unilaterally strip us of that right will remain an obstacle to local control throughout Montana unless the state Supreme Court decides this important issue.”
The Silvertip landowners sought the protections of citizen zoning after Energy Corporation of America announced plans in October 2013 to hydraulically fracture 50 wells along the Beartooth Front, an area that includes Carbon and Stillwater counties in Montana and forms the northeastern flank of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Mork boasted that ECA hoped to bring “a little bit of the Bakken” to the Beartooths.
Although interest in large-scale oil and gas development in Carbon County has waned with the drop in oil prices over the last several months, Martinell said the zoning designation remains necessary to protect landowners when oil and gas development picks up again. “Through this process we’ve learned that developing regulations takes time and protections can’t be put in place over night. If we’re going to get this right, now is the time to act.”
Landowners in Stillwater County plan to bring petitions requesting a similar zone to the Stillwater County Commissioners later this year.
Earthjustice, an environmental nonprofit law firm, is representing the Silvertip landowners in their appeal.
Citizen initiated zoning: a way to restore fairness to oil and gas drilling in Montana
Frequently Asked Questions about the Silvertip citizen-initiated zone
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Why Silvertip landowners filed suit against the Carbon County Commissioners
Breaking: Decision in Silvertip Zone case (includes timeline of events)
Judge Blair Jones’ ruling