American Dream’s ‘Christmas Present’: Lawsuit

By Beacon Staff

Last week, American Dream Montana, a local pro-property rights group, delivered an early Christmas “gift” to the Flathead County Commission – a lawsuit.

In a Christmas card addressed to Commissioner Gary Hall and the commission, the group included a hand-written note, “Gary, I hope you enjoy our Christmas present,” and a press release saying it planned to renew its lawsuit over the county’s subdivision regulations.

“The latest set of regulations, adopted in December of 2008, severely limit the right of property owners in Flathead County to own, control and posses their own property,” Russ Crowder, the group’s chairman, said in the release.

From road standards to streamside setbacks, the county subdivision regulations lay out what steps developers must take to get a new project approved. They apply only to those choosing to subdivide land. The county started revising the regulations early last year because state law required it to be in compliance with the county’s new growth policy.

In August 2007, the county adopted its new regulations but, amid widespread controversy, withheld about 15 of the most contentious sections for further review and discussion. American Dream originally filed its lawsuit in October 2007, but waited to serve the complaint until the county had completed the process.

The county commission approved the remaining handful of regulations this month, bringing the entire document up-to-date. But it appears a year of workshops, research and public meetings, did little to assuage American Dream’s concerns.

According to last week’s press release, the group has amended its lawsuit to include some of the county’s latest changes and planned to serve the commission within a few days.

“The regulations contain more than 100 serious legal issues that are not in compliance with state law,” Crowder said.

According to the release, the county subdivision regulations require developers to secure permits from other agencies before approving a subdivision. But American Dream says those permits often don’t exist.

The group also contends that the county’s regulations are more stringent than state law or guidelines without meeting the legal requirements to do so, and are “so burdensome that they deny a property owner the reasonable right to use and control their own property.”

The lawsuit continues a testy relationship between the group and the county. Hall has previously described American Dream as an “extremist” and “special interest” group. It also prolongs the debate over the regulations, which seem poised to stay in the public eye.

The Montana Building Industry Association, with support from local building and real estate groups, sued the county last month, describing the subdivision regulations as “illegal” and “the most burdensome and costly in the state.”

For their part, the commissioners have described the regulations as a good step forward for the county and repeatedly voiced confidence in their legality. They also plan to create a commission-appointed committee to further review the regulations for functionality, redundancies and clarifications in the coming months.