In a long-awaited decision, District Judge Matthew Wald ruled yesterday in favor of Beartooth Front landowners in their suit against Stillwater County. The landowners are seeking to establish a citizen-initiated zone that would place reasonable regulation on future oil and gas drilling along the Beartooth Front in southern Stillwater County.
Judge Wald granted the landowners’ request for summary judgment against the County, and denied the County’s motion. In doing so, he ruled unambiguously that the County was not justified in requiring the landowners to obtain signatures from minerals owners in addition to surface landowners. His ruling also stated that the County had set up an unworkable method of evaluating the landowners’ petitions that was in violation of the County’s own rules.
The decision marks the latest step in a long process of local landowners fighting for their rights under state law.
A six year process
Concerned about potential oil and gas activity in the area, the Beartooth landowners began gathering signatures in 2014. According to Montana law, landowners must submit to the County signatures from 60% of the real property owners in an area in order to begin the process of establishing a citizen-initiated zone. In August 2017, the County Clerk and Recorder validated the submitted signatures and determined that the petitioners had exceeded 60% of the real property owners, as required. This represented a massive effort by the petitioners — over 550 validated landowner signatures.
However, that same month the Stillwater County Attorney informed the petitioners that, while they had achieved 60% of the “surface holders” of the land, the law required that they obtain the signatures of 60% of the subsurface minerals owners as well. The County Commissioners formally adopted this view in January 2018, despite the fact that it directly contradicted their own citizen-initiated zoning rules, and despite the fact that this interpretation of the law had never been used before in citizen-initiated zoning in Montana. In effect, the County Commissioners were attempting to make new state law.
The landowners filed suit in February 2018. After a long sequence of procedural maneuvers and an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the conflict through county zoning, the decision went to a hearing in front of Judge Wald on May 14 of this year. This week’s decision follows that hearing.
The favorable decision gives the landowners exactly what they asked for, and what the law requires. Judge Wald directed the County to accept the validated petitions and schedule a public hearing to evaluate the zone. The County has not yet responded.
Beartooth Front landowners present hundreds of signatures to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up oil and gas zoning district
Do mineral rights have anything to do with citizen initiated zoning in Montana?
Beartooth Front zone update: Stillwater Commissioners turn their backs on locals who pay their salaries; support unknown outsiders
Beartooth Front landowners file suit against Stillwater County Commissioners
Stillwater residents give Commissioners an earful on proposed policy (with video)
Landowners show up for hearing on Beartooth Front lawsuit
Beartooth Front landowners win first round of lawsuit
Beartooth Front Coalition brief requesting summary judgment – filed August 28, 2018
Stillwater County’s request for extension – filed September 13, 2018
Judge Jones’ order granting extension – filed September 20, 2018
County’s brief in support of cross-motion for Summary Judgment – filed October 30, 2018
Landowners’ response to cross-motion for Summary Judgment – filed November 30, 2018
Judge Wald’s decision – filed September 1, 2020