A district court hearing in the Beartooth Front landowners’ suit against the Stillwater County Commissioners, originally scheduled for May 23, was postponed by mutual agreement of the parties. The reason for the postponement was a positive development in discussions between the landowners and the Commissioners.
The two sides agreed that the landowners would propose a county-inititiated zone to the Stillwater County Planning Board on June 5. If the Planning Board recommends forming the zone, which would regulate oil and gas activity along the Beartooth Front, and the Commissioners approve it, the lawsuit would become unnecessary.
If the zone is not formed, the lawsuit will continue.
You can provide critical support by attending the Planning Board meeting and speaking up to show that residents are behind the landowners’ efforts. Read more below.
Landowners began working on a proposal to create a special district in October 2013, when the Billings Gazette announced that a Denver oil and gas operator had opened an office in Billings with the intention of “bringing a little bit of the Bakken” to the Beartooth Front. At the same time a drill pad appeared off Highway 419 near Dean.
Local residents of southern Stillwater County were alarmed that this kind of development could occur without any advance notice or planning for the mitigation of potential impacts to natural resources and the financial interests of private landowners.
They approached the Stillwater County Commissioners to request support for a citizen-initiated zone to ensure that any future drilling was done with proper consideration for the unique character of the Beartooth Front area. Their intent was not to block drilling, but to make sure that it was done right.
The Commissioners refused to meet with them or provide support. Undeterred, the group decided to form a citizen-initiated zone, which required a supporting petition signed by 60% of local landowners. They collected over 575 signatures, which they presented to the County in November 2015.
The County ignored and delayed validating the petitions, finally announcing in August 2017 that the group had surpassed the required 60% of signatures.
But there was a hitch. The County decided to interpret Montana law in a way it has never been interpreted before, saying that the law required the signatures of not only 60% of the landowners, but 60% of the underlying mineral owners. The petitioners were left with no choice but to sue for their rights.
The suit has wended its way through the courts, surviving a motion to dismiss by the County and a change of judges, and was scheduled for a hearing in district court on May 23 to decide the case.
But the Commissioners met with the landowners in May, and a decision was made to consider the landowners’ proposal to form a zone before the Planning Board at its June 5 meeting. If the Planning Board decides to go forward with a zone, and it is approved by the Commissioners, the suit would become unnecessary.
Action Alert. What you can do to help
Formation of a zone will be the subject of discussion of at least the next three meetings of the Stillwater Planning Board. These meetings are open to the public, and audience members have the opportunity to speak.
Your attendance at these meetings is critical. After six years of study, signature gathering, and meetings, there is a real opportunity right now to protect our land by making sure that any future oil and gas drilling is done right. Please forward this to others who you think might be interested.
This is probably the last opportunity to settle this issue out of court. Please help to make it count.
Meetings are held on the first Wednesday of the month, so the next three dates are:
Meetings are held at 7:00pm at the Stillwater County Planning Office at 431 Quarry Road in Columbus.
Background material for Planning Board Meeting:
The landowners will present the following proposal material to the Planning Board at the meeting on June 5:
Beartooth Front Zoning District Overview
Zoning District Map
Overview of Proposed Regulation
More information on the lawsuit:
Beartooth Front Landowners present hundreds of signatures to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up oil and gas zoning district (with video)
Do mineral rights have anything to do with citizen initiated zones in Montana?
Stillwater County Commissioners turn their backs on locals who pay their salaries; support unknown outsiders
Beartooth Front landowners file legal action against Stillwater County Commissioners
Landowners show up for hearing on Beartooth Front lawsuit
Court documents and other records related to the lawsuit can be found at the Beartooth Front Coalition website.
Watch the Preserve the Beartooth Front video: