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Parties in a lawsuit over a controversial Lockwood gravel mine will meet over the next weeks to try to settle the dispute out of court.

Yellowstone County commissioners said Tuesday that they’re willing to take the case to the Montana Supreme Court. But they agreed to delay an appeal if the parties can reach an agreement on their own.

The commission has until Aug. 14 to appeal a ruling against the county in a lawsuit by Merlin Myers Revocable Trust. The trust filed the suit last fall after commissioners denied a special review permit for the gravel mine, located near Lockwood School.

In a finding on June 12, District Judge Russell Fagg agreed with the plaintiff, saying the commission lacks legal authority to prevent gravel mining in property zoned agricultural open space. Fagg reversed the commission’s action and ordered commissioners to grant the special review and determine what reasonable conditions, if any, should be placed on the gravel operation.

On Tuesday, commissioners discussed the case with representatives of the Lockwood School District, the nearby Hillside Mobile Home Park and Jim Murphy, an attorney representing Dale and Terri Myers, owners of the gravel pit.

“We would be willing to postpone our decision (on an appeal) here if you can bring an agreement back to us by Aug. 3,” said Commissioner Bill Kennedy. Commissioners tabled the matter until then.

While Yellowstone County is named as the defendant in the lawsuit, the mobile home park and the Lockwood School District are also involved in settlement discussions.

The only access to the gravel mine on the Myers’ property is an easement that crosses school grounds. And the owner of the mobile home court has complained about dust and noise that the mining operation could bring.

Last fall, the parties held discussions about mitigating the effects of gravel hauling by using berms, fences, dust control and limiting hours of operation. No agreement was reached, however, and talks ended after the commission denied the special review.

Murphy said Tuesday that if commissioners choose to appeal the case to the Montana Supreme Court, the appeal could delay a solution at least a year.

Clint Reynolds, owner of Hillside Village Mobile Home Court, said he’s still open to discussions with the owners of the gravel pit.

Representatives of the school district said previous discussions haven’t been productive. “We have met time after time, but we haven’t been able to come to an agreement,” said Eileen Johnson, Lockwood superintendent.

At issue in the case is whether commissioners have the right to deny a gravel operation in an area zoned agricultural open space. In the lawsuit, Myers sasys that the commission doesn’t have the authority to deny gravel mining in an area so zoned. Under state law, the County Commission can deny a special-use permit for a gravel operation only in areas zoned residential, the lawsuit says.

In denying the permit, commissioners argued that the proposed mine would deny Lockwood students their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

But Fagg concluded that the commission’s decision violated the Montana Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.

“As an arm of the executive branch of government, the commissioners had a duty to faithfully execute the laws of this state as enacted by the Legislature and presumed constitutional. Here, the commissioners failed to do this. Instead, they decided a statute conflicted with the Montana Constitution and they refused to faithfully carry it out,” Fagg wrote.

Tom Howard can be reached at 657-1261 or at thoward@billingsgazette.com

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