COLUMBUS — During a sometimes contentious meeting, the Stillwater County Planning board wrestled Wednesday night with what to do with a property owner proposal to zone a portion of the Beartooth Front to enact restrictions on oil and gas drilling.
“More than once tonight the legality of the entire process was questioned, and that is worth exploring,” said board chairman Curtis Jacobs, who is seeking an opinion from the county attorney about the proposals. “These are not reasonable regulations. Cumbersome and complicated are better” ways to describe them.
The detailed proposal, created by a group of landowners called the Beartooth Front Coalition, addresses issues such as: setback standards for minimum distances between wellheads and homes, schools and waterways; noise abatement; water testing before, during and after drilling; air quality testing; and soil quality testing to detect possible contamination.
Burt Williams, whose grandfather homesteaded in the county in 1915, said he joined the coalition after reading a 2013 newspaper story in which an oil company touted development of the Beartooth Front as the new Bakken. The Bakken is an oil formation in Eastern Montana and North Dakota that has seen extensive development in the past decade.
“It scared the hell out of me,” Williams said.
When Williams approached the Stillwater County Commission for help, “they refused,” he said. So he took another route, attempting to create zoning through a citizens’ initiative. That required signatures from at least 60% of the registered landowners in the proposed zoning district, about 900 people. The coalition was able to collect 575 signatures.
“That doesn’t mean the others are against us,” Williams said, because there were some limited liability corporations listed as landowners where a specific person could not be found.
In January 2018, Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rhode advised the clerk and recorder not to authorize the petition because it didn’t include mineral rights owners. That prompted the coalition to sue the county.
The lawsuit was put on hold after negotiations between the coalition and the county commission. The commission agreed to allow the coalition to approach the planning board with a proposal. Two prior meetings with the board were “very positive,” said David Katz, a coalition member.
After presenting the proposals to the board, Katz stressed that the regulations were similar to those enacted in other states where there is oil and gas drilling and do not conflict with Montana laws.
Bob Horn, a plan consultant hired by the coalition to help develop the special purpose regulations, said the goal is to protect the “prominently rural quality of the Beartooth Front.” The rules would be limited to drilling and only in the 80,000 acres of the district, not the entire county, he noted.
“Our process starts with the actual production well, which wouldn’t begin until the company has a permit from the county,” Horn said.
But Wednesday night’s meeting, attended by about 60 people at the County Pavilion, showed a board divided on how to move forward. Member Karen Heyneman, of Fishtail, repeatedly clashed with the board chairman and asked that he not engage in private discussions with contracted county planner Forrest Mandeville, who was sitting beside Jacobs.
Mandeville said under the guidelines proposed by the Beartooth Front Coalition even one proposal to drill would overwhelm county staff with paperwork and overload the county’s computer bandwidth because of the amount of information that would have to be posted.
Acknowledging that it would take more work, Heyneman said that’s not enough reason to deny the petition.
“I don’t think it’s our job to get in the way of people approaching government lawfully,” she said.
Board member Rita Westrum, of Fishtail, who was accused by Jacobs of being a representative for the coalition, questioned whether the board would ever be satisfied with what the petitioners submitted.
“If not, then we need to develop our own proposal,” she said.
At the end of the three-hour meeting, the board agreed to seek a speaker from the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation to see if the coalition’s proposals duplicated existing regulations. Mandeville will also seek someone from Gallatin County to address the board. Gallatin County has eight zoning districts that impose conditional use permits directed at protection of natural resources.
A copy of the zoning district proposals can be found online at: https://davidjkatz.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/beartooth-front-zoning-district-draft-final.pdf