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.
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.
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.
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
Photo: Alpine Images
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: