West Valley Gravel Pit Reopens

By Beacon Staff

Nearly two years after legal challenges first shut it down, a controversial West Valley gravel pit can resume operation.

Last week, the Flathead County Board of Adjustment voted 3-1 to approve a conditional use permit for the Church Drive pit, owned by Bruce Tutvedt. Board member Tony Sagami was the lone dissenting vote, and board member Mark Hash did not vote on the issue.

It was the second time the board has approved a permit for the pit in what has become a lengthy and far-reaching legal battle.

In 2005, the county board granted the Tutvedt Family Partnership a conditional use permit for crushing, screening and extraction, but denied Tutvedt’s request to include asphalt and batch plants. A neighborhood group called Flathead Citizens for Quality Growth sued, arguing that gravel operations weren’t allowed under West Valley’s neighborhood plan, while Tutvedt sued over the board’s decision to deny the plants.

A Flathead County District Court judge ruled that the conditional-use permit was issued correctly, and both parties appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.

On Jan. 3, the Supreme Court ruled that the board had improperly interpreted terms in the West Valley Neighborhood Plan and county zoning regulations, and had inadequate or no evidence to support its conclusions, conditions and approval for the project. The court also ruled against the Tutvedt Family Partnership in its claim that the Board of Adjustment had wrongfully prohibited asphalt and batch plants.

The case was remanded back to District Court, which sent the pit – and its opponents – back to the county board. The aftermath of last week’s meeting was similar to the board’s first hearing on the issue: Both parties left frustrated and dissatisfied.

Angry neighbors contend the county’s actions retroactively undo the Supreme Court’s decision without addressing the effects of gravel operations on those who live nearby.

“If they thumb their noses at the Supreme Court, how are the people who live here supposed to believe they’ll ever listen to us?” Clara LaChapelle, a West Valley resident and vocal critic of the pit, asked. “Our concerns fall on deaf ears.”

Meanwhile, attorney Tammi Fisher, who represented Tutvedt, said the 10 conditions the board applied to the new conditional use permit were beyond the legal scope of the county’s control. The conditions included a 20-year sunset on the permit and reviews by the county planning office every five years, as well as restrictions on soils, site disturbance and recycling materials.

“We support them in their decision, obviously, to reissue the permit, but at least two of the conditions are illegal on their face and the rest are unnecessary,” she said. “No applicant should have to go through this much work, time and expense to get a CUP.”

Neither side ruled out the chance of more litigation, but both appeared weary at the thought. Fisher described her clients as “exhausted and dismayed with the process.” If there’s one thing the two groups agree on, though, it’s that the system for regulating gravel pits is broken.

“The system is fatally flawed,” Fisher said, “and until our county and state government rework regulations to be clear and concise so that people know the process when they go in, there’s no rhyme or reason to this.”