Supreme Court Rules Against Whitefish in Doughnut Lawsuit

By Beacon Staff

The city of Whitefish’s battle to retain control of the planning doughnut surrounding the city took another hit this week when the Montana Supreme Court denied its request for an injunction pending appeal.

“Essentially it means the county is free to continue its activity in changing things in order to assume a role of control in the doughnut area,” Jonathan Smith, chief deputy attorney with the Flathead County attorney’s office, said.

It’s the latest turn in what has become a convoluted series of appeals and court rulings since the dispute between the city of Whitefish and Flathead County began in March.

The ongoing legal struggle stems from a controversy over a 2005 interlocal agreement that transferred final land-use and zoning power in the doughnut from the county to the city. Because of concern over new Whitefish regulations and vocal opposition to the city’s authority from residents who live in the area, county commissioners voted 2-1 to rescind the decision in March.

Then the Whitefish City Council voted to sue the county in Flathead County District Court, arguing that the interlocal agreement couldn’t be unilaterally terminated and also asking for a preliminary injunction – a temporary restraining order to prevent commissioners from acting outside of the interlocal agreement until the city gets a hearing.

In May, District Court Judge Katherine Curtis denied the city’s request for the preliminary injunction. Whitefish requested another injunction, in this instance for the time it took to appeal Curtis’ ruling to the Supreme Court. Curtis denied that second injunction request as well, and the city again appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

On July 29, the state’s highest court upheld Curtis’ second ruling and denied the request for an injunction while it considers the original appeal. Whitefish city officials were not immediately available for comment Friday.

In the meantime, the county is free to continue with the process of transferring authority, which will include updating the county growth policy, rezoning certain areas and figuring out where Big Mountain falls. The county held its first public meeting to discuss the transition of the doughnut area to the county at its July 16 County Planning Board meeting.

Next, the Supreme Court will consider the city’s appeal as to whether the local court should have denied the city’s initial request to halt the county’s takeover of the doughnut area.