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.
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.
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:
- This is not a policy. It is just a way to keep landowners from exercising their rights under the law. Examples:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Photo: Alpine Images