All briefs have now been filed in the Carbon County case before the Montana Supreme Court. In the case, Belfry landowners have challenged the Carbon County Commission’s rejection of their petition for land use regulations to protect their private properties from the harmful effects of oil and gas drilling.
The Supreme Court has previously agreed to review the case. The Court will now decide whether to schedule a hearing or make a decision after reviewing the briefs.
The landowners collectively seek to establish the “Silvertip Zoning District” to cover nearly 3,000 acres of agricultural land north of Belfry, Montana. Creation of the district is the first step to establish solid protections for land, air and water quality, giving landowners an essential voice in the development of oil and gas on their properties.
Earthjustice, an environmental nonprofit law firm, is representing the Silvertip landowners in their appeal out of the firm’s Livingston office. The Commissioners are represented by Doney Crowley PC of Helena and Carbon County attorney Alex Nixon, and the protesting landowners are represented by Raymond Kuntz of Red Lodge
You can read the briefs that have been filed in the case by clicking on the links below:
- Silvertip landowners brief
- The prestigious Natural Resources and Land Use Clinic at the University of Montana School of Law filed an amicus brief in the case supporting constitutional provisions raised in landowners’ case.
- Commissioners response
- Neighbors response
- Silvertip landowners response
Why this is important
Montana law affords few protections to landowners against damages that can occur when oil and gas activity takes place near their homes:
- The prevalence of split estates means that landowners frequently have no say over what happens on their property.
- The Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, which is the primary state regulatory agency for oil and gas activity, is structured specifically to favor industry over landowners. The result is that there are no restrictions over how close wellheads are placed to occupied buildings, water is not sufficiently protected, air quality is not protected.
- The state does not adequately enforce regulations that are on the books.
- Bonding requirements are insufficient to protect landowners against damage when operators abandon wells.
- The Montana legislature has shown no interest in passing laws to protect citizens against potential damage from drilling.
Citizen initiated zoning (CIZ) is one of the few opportunities Montana citizens have to establish local regulations to protect their properties. It has been used effectively in places like Bozeman and Great Falls to establish regulations to protect citizens.
Yet that process is badly flawed. The Silvertip zoning case currently before the Supreme Court exposes some of the problems with the process. Silvertip landowners worked to meet all CIZ requirements. Their petitions were accepted by the Carbon County Commissioners, who then made the decision, after multiple public hearings, that the zone was “in the public interest and convenience,” as required by law.
Subsequent events that led the Commissioners to reverse their decision exposed some significant ambiguities in the process that will affect landowners in other counties. Cases like the current one can help to make the CIZ process more clearly defined in law so that the Silvertip landowners, as well as landowners in other communities, can take advantage of CIZ provisions to protect their properties.
Judge Blair Jones’ ruling in district court
Carbon County Resolution 2009-16, establishing requirements for citizen initiated zoning petitions
Timeline of events in the Silvertip case, with videos of all related public meetings
FAQ: What the petitioners want