A state judge ruled late last month in favor of a Kila-Smith Lake community group in a lawsuit against Flathead County, revoking the county commission’s approval of a 74-lot subdivision.
A victory for the Kila-Smith Lake Community Development Coalition, Flathead County District Judge Ted Lympus’s ruling says the county violated its own subdivision regulations and growth policy when it approved the Haskill Mountain Ranch subdivision in 2006. The subdivision was planned for approximately 530 acres about seven miles southwest of Kila.
“Hopefully this is a wake up call for the county commissioners,” Roger Sullivan, attorney for the community group, said. “If there’s any lesson to be learned from this lawsuit, it’s as simple as that it’s important for the county commissioners to follow their own rules. If they do that the system works.”
In 2006, the Flathead County Planning Board unanimously recommended denial of the project – citing concerns about lot size, emergency services and water – but the Flathead County commissioners approved Haskill Mountain in a 2-1 vote. Commissioners Gary Hall and Bob Watne argued that their initial concerns had been mitigated, citing, for one, a nearby road the developers agreed to pave. Commissioner Joe Brenneman cast the lone “nay,” saying the subdivision was fundamentally incompatible with the rest of the adjacent land.
The community group and Charles and Catherine Meyer, adjacent landowners to the subdivision, sued the county, alleging among other things that the environmental assessment for the subdivision was grossly incomplete. Following the commission’s approval, the original owner sold the subdivision to Florida Flathead, which joined the lawsuit in support of the county’s decision.
Florida Flathead and the county argued that the coalition couldn’t file the lawsuit because it was not a contiguous landowner, and that the Meyers wouldn’t be adversely affected by the subdivision.
Judge Lympus disagreed, though, saying both parties were within their rights, and went on to rule that the county-required environmental assessment was not only inadequate, but in cases where information was provided, proved the subdivision should be denied. Lympus pointed to “glaring omissions” in the application, regarding sewage treatment, ground and surface water, geology, wildlife effects and land use.
In one section he wrote: “Another glaring example of the inadequacy of the application is that the required water samples were not from well logs or wells on-site or nearby wells, as required … but were from 20 to 40 miles away from the site of the proposed subdivision.”
Lympus also ruled that the county violated the state’s Department of Environmental Quality regulations in many cases and violated its own 60-day time limit when making the decision.
The Haskill Mountain lawsuit is representative of a growing string of land-use-related lawsuits filed against Flathead County in recent years. Most agree the litigation is yet another symptom of Flathead’s continuing growing pains, but that’s where the consensus ends.
From October 2002 to October of last year, according to the Montana Association of Counties, there have been at least 28 lawsuits filed against Flathead County over zoning or subdivision denials or approvals. In the last year, there’s been at least six.
For the Kila-Smith Lake community group, last month’s ruling means welcome reprieve from a lawsuit they say never should have happened.
“I hope this sets a precedent that will hold developers to the standard of the law instead of whatever is the commissioners’ whim,” Scott Lampshire, secretary and board member for the coalition, said. “That’s the difference between the good ol’ boys club acting autonomously and diligent county government.”
The group also hopes their victory means others won’t have to deal with the same issue and incur the same costs of time and money in the future. Over the past two years, the group has held two rummage sales and a community auction and dinner to pay off the approximately $45,000 it spent fighting the subdivision.
“It’s a hard thing when citizens have to pay for a lawsuit so the county does its job right,” Lampshire said.
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