In yet another twist to the legal tussle between Whitefish and Flathead County over a planning jurisdiction referred to as the “doughnut,” the Montana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a judge erred in not granting a preliminary injunction to Whitefish in the spring.
The preliminary injunction would have kept zoning and planning power in the two-mile doughnut area in the hands of Whitefish until an overarching lawsuit could play out in court. Instead, Judge Curtis of Flathead County District Court denied the injunction and the county moved forward with plans to wrest control of the doughnut from Whitefish. Now she must grant it, the Supreme Court said in its ruling.
Justice John Warner cast the only dissenting opinion.
Essentially, as interpreted by Whitefish City Attorney John Phelps, the Supreme Court ruling brings the two parties back to the status quo that existed before Flathead County commissioners voted in March to take over the doughnut. For months, the county has been adapting its growth policy to include the two-mile doughnut area.
Whitefish has had final land-use and zoning authority over the area since it entered into an interlocal agreement with the county in 2005. The March vote by the commissioners rescinded that agreement and Whitefish subsequently sued. The result has been a prolonged legal battle to decide which side ultimately has control of the doughnut.
“We’re back where we were last January before the county tried to rescind the agreement,” Phelps said, meaning he believes the county’s efforts to shape its growth policy around the doughnut are moot until a trial decides the final outcome.
Alan McCormick, a Missoula attorney representing the county, was not immediately available for comment.
Curtis initially ruled that Whitefish was unlikely to prevail in a trial and therefore denied the preliminary injunction. In the high court’s opinion, Justice Patricia Cotter argued that Curtis should not have factored in the merits of the case when deciding on a preliminary injunction.
“The District Court put the cart before the horse,” Cotter wrote.
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