The board of Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative on Friday ratified a settlement that will allow the co-op to continue working on a gas-fired power plant east of Great Falls.

Trustees voted during a closed session to approve the settlement, which was reached earlier this week with the Montana Environmental Information Center and 48 rural residents and farmers, said board president Bill FitzGerald, of Mid-Yellowstone Electric of Hysham.

During the board’s meeting in Billings, where Southern is based, Tim Gregori, Southern’s CEO, said he will seek a special use zoning permit from Cascade County to allow the $125 million project to proceed. The permit is required because the state Supreme Court ruled last month that the county illegally rezoned the land for industrial use so the plant could be built. The land reverted to agricultural zoning after the court ruling.

A settlement reached Wednesday will allow the Highwood Generating Station, a 120-megawatt plant, to go forward on the condition that the developers limit the impact on neighboring property owners and pay their legal bills, which total about $140,000.

Southern also promised to never build a coal-fired plant on the property and to undertake strict noise-control steps to limit the sound from the turbines. Also, a portion of the route used by explorers Lewis and Clark will remain in agricultural use, and Southern will reach voluntary agreements with landowners over utility lines that will be on private land.

MEIC and the landowners agreed not to fight Southern’s efforts to get a special-use permit from the county.

MEIC and the landowners sued Southern in 2006 after it planned to build a 250-megawatt coal-fired plant on more than 600 acres.

Gregori told the board that 10 miles of pipeline for the plant have been built and that all of the pipeline rights of way have been secured. The contractor is ahead of schedule and under budget on the pipeline installation, he said.

The plant should be in operation by next June, Gregori said.

Southern is allowing a Billings Gazette reporter to attend its meetings under an agreement reached between the two organizations while a lawsuit is pending. The Gazette sued Southern in June seeking to prevent it from holding closed meetings.

Southern has barred members of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative and a Great Falls resident from attending its meeting and on Friday again declined entry for two Beartooth members.

Southern is the parent cooperative of several cooperatives and was formed with the intent of building the Highwood station. Electric City Power of Great Falls joined Southern and has invested more than $1 million in the project. A Great Falls representative did not attend Friday’s meeting.

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