A jury voted unanimously Thursday evening that the city of Whitefish unfairly denied two residents equal protection under the law by not permitting them to build a house on Whitefish Lake.
The jury voted 12-0 on two counts in favor of William and Theodora Walton regarding the way a controversial critical areas ordinance was applied and administered by the city. Last year, the city ruled that the Waltons couldn’t build a home in the Houston Point area, citing a specification in the ordinance that prohibits building on 30 percent slopes. The Waltons sued.
On one count the jury found that Whitefish violated the Waltons’ right to equal protection under the law and on a second count found that the city violated the Federal Civil Rights Act.
Also, the city of Whitefish must pay $300,00 in delay damages caused by increased building material costs and, possibly, attorney fees. One of the Waltons’ attorneys, Doug Scotti, said attorney fees could amount to more than $80,000. Scotti was assistant attorney for the Waltons’ head trial lawyer, Sean Frampton.
“I don’t know what the city was thinking,” Scotti said. “I think they treated this like a walk in the park.”
The validity of the ordinance was not questioned Thursday; the concern was how it was applied, which was unfairly, Scotti said. Judge Ted Lympus already ruled on the validity of the ordinance in early May when he ruled in favor of the city.
“(Judge Lympus) basically issued a ruling saying the ordinance was valid,” he said. “The concern this time was the way the law was applied. Ultimately, this was because it was a big house on Whitefish Lake.”
The jury needed less than 15 minutes to reach decisions on the claims, Scotti said, but six hours to decide on damages. Bob Horne, Whitefish’s former city planner who was instrumental in drafting the ordinance, and City Attorney John Phelps were the main witnesses.
Scotti said the Waltons felt they were “clearly singled out” by the city. All of this could have been avoided, he said, if the city would have treated the Waltons like everybody else.
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