Flathead County voters will determine whether to extend a special zoning district near Creston that could limit or preclude the development of a proposed water bottling plant, a venture that has drawn widespread opposition and legal wrangling.
A ballot initiative will move forward after the group Yes! For Farms and Water collected enough signatures to qualify its zoning proposal as a countywide ballot initiative, garnering support from more than 15 percent of Flathead County’s registered voters.
The Flathead County Election Department determined on June 27 that the petition had received 12,455 verified signatures, surpassing the required minimum of 10,067. According to Flathead County Clerk and Recorder Deb Pierson, 1,913 signatures were dismissed, either because they were duplicates or could not be verified.
Pierson said she did not know when the citizens’ initiative to expand the zoning district will appear on the ballot, but guessed that it would be included during the next countywide election, slated to coincide with the June 5, 2018 primary elections.
The group launched its petition March 29 in response to permits sought by Lew Weaver, the Creston man interested in turning his farmland into the Montana Artesian Water Company.
Weaver applied for a permit with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation that would allow his company to produce up to 140,000 water bottles per hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The water right would allow Weaver’s company to receive 710 acre feet of water annually, equaling roughly 1.2 billion 20-ounce water bottles.
Neighbors to the proposed bottling facility have publicly raised concerns, and last year asked the Flathead County Commission to expand the Egan Slough Zoning District created in 2002 to preserve the land’s agricultural character. The zoning district prohibits some industrial use and limits new parcels to no less than 80 acres.
When the commission rejected the zoning expansion, the landowners sued the county, arguing that the commission didn’t adequately respond to public comment when considering the district’s expansion.
Although Weaver supported creating the district in 2002, including zoning overlays on chunks of his property, he now opposes the expansion, a perceived about-face that prompted supporters of the new initiative to cry foul.
During a conversation with the Beacon on June 30, Weaver declined to make on-the-record comments on the ballot initiative, but he previously stated that his opposition to the expanded zoning district this time around is because the petition singles him out, and is designed specifically to block his business plans and restrict his property rights.
Still, neighbors like Steve Harvey, a co-founder of the local Yes! group, believe expanding the district will help protect the rural character of the area, as well as prevent potential impacts to residential wells, stave off environmental degradation and maintain property values.
The pending lawsuit asserts the water-bottling plant could eventually add 200 car and truck trips per day to the rural gravel roads, creating safety concerns and noise and air pollution, and impacting property values. The lawsuit said an expert real estate evaluation placed the total loss of property values at more than $16.6 million for landowners around the plant.
The proposed expansion would add 530 acres to the existing 1,150-acre district created in 2002, the lion’s share of which falls on Weaver’s property.
If Flathead County voters approve the ballot initiative to expand the district, the land would fall under the auspices of the Egan Slough Zoning Commission, which would be charged with determining whether Weaver’s business fits within the eligible uses.