After three years of inaction, delays, and excuses by the Stillwater County Commission, landowners along the Beartooth Front filed legal action against them last week. The suit seeks recognition of the landowners’ petition to form a special zone that would establish regulations providing a reasonable balance between oil and gas development and the long-term health of this unique rural and agricultural community. The group does not seek to ban drilling.
In denying the petition in January, the commissioners turned their backs on years of grass roots effort by local taxpayers trying to protect their land. Their decision jeopardizes the rights of landowners across Montana.
The process of citizen-initiated zoning is well established in state law. According to MCA 76-2-101, landowners can petition to form a zone whenever “the public interest or convenience may require.” To do so, they need to collect the signatures of 60 percent of the “affected real property owners of the proposed district” and present them to the commissioners, who typically hold a public hearing before deciding to establish the zone. This happens frequently in Montana; there are at least 111 such zones across the state.
The petitioners started working on this in October 2013, when a West Virginia oil executive opened up shop in Billings and promised to bring “a little bit of the Bakken” to the Beartooths. Concerned about possible impacts to water, agriculture, livestock, and wildlife, as well as the potential cost of damage to roads and other infrastructure, the landowners approached the commissioners about setting up a citizen-initiated zone.
For three years the commissioners refused to engage or recognize these concerns.
Undeterred, the landowners developed a petition and received the overwhelming support of their neighbors within an 83,000-acre area – over 550 signed the petition, which was presented to the Stillwater County clerk for validation in November 2015. Finally, nearly two years later, the clerk verified that over 60 percent of the landowners in the area had signed the petition.
But instead of allowing the clerk to send the petition forward, the county attorney, with full support of the commissioners, stepped in, maintaining that the petitioners had failed to reach 60 percent because they didn’t get the signatures of mineral rights holders as well as surface estate owners.
This startling position is unprecedented and unsupportable. In the 65 years since the Legislature enacted citizen-initiated zoning, not a single one of the 111 zones has ever required the signatures of minerals owners.
The Stillwater commissioners know that the standard they have set is impossible to achieve. Here’s why: everybody knows who the surface owners are. They pay property taxes, vote in elections, and contribute to the local economy. But nobody knows who the mineral holders are. They don’t pay local taxes, and they have no stake in Stillwater County other than the remote hope of getting a royalty check. No title company has a list of them. Neither does the county clerk. Minerals abstractors estimate it would cost $250,000 to generate such a list for the proposed zone.
In places like Gallatin, Ravalli, Yellowstone and Missoula Counties, commissioners embrace the grass roots work of their constituents and support their efforts to protect their land. Not in Stillwater County, where commissioners are clearly trying to circumvent the law.
It’s hard to imagine why the commissioners want to spend precious resources to argue an outlandish legal theory in court against landowners who pay their salaries. But landowners all over Montana should beware: If the Stillwater commissioners are successful, the decision could apply statewide and put an end to one of the only tools we have to protect our properties.