The state Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Flathead District Court’s ruling that Whitefish violated a couple’s right to equal protection under the law after the city denied the couple’s building exemption permit.
In June 2007, the district court ruled in favor of landowners William and Theodora Walton, resulting in $300,000 in damages and nearly $100,000 in legal fees tacked on a year later. The city also must pay nearly $40,000 in interest on the damages.
The Waltons sued Whitefish and the city planning director, Bob Horne, after a reasonable use exception for home construction on their Whitefish Lake property was denied.
The lawsuit contended that they were unfairly denied a reasonable use exemption after Horne had issued similar exemptions for the Grouse Mountain Estates.
The landowners sought the exemption to build their home on a slope with a grade exceeding 30 percent, the highest allowed at the time by the urgency provision. This provision precluded the current critical areas ordinance around Whitefish put in place to regulate the storm water drainage in sensitive areas.
After the district court ruled in the Waltons’ favor in 2007, Whitefish appealed the ruling in 2008 to the state Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decided that the ruling does not set a precedent.
Sean Frampton, the Waltons’ attorney, said his clients are happy with the decision but the lawsuit ultimately didn’t need to happen.
“We were willing to settle this case so many times if we could have a building permit used,” Frampton said. “They were not interested acquiring a money settlement from the city.”
City Manager Chuck Stearns said Whitefish will abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling, but at nearly $500,000 it is a definite hit to city finances. He said the city council cut back on spending to build up a reserve in case the court ruled against them.
“The issue in the case was a judgment call, and the jury and the Supreme Court disagreed with the former city planner’s judgment,” Stearns said. “Live and learn.”
Horne said he is not surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision, but still thinks important facts, such as the differences between the Waltons’ property and that of Grouse Mountain, were lost in a complicated jury trial.
“Land use is a very complicated issue and I’ll never be convinced the jury understood what they were being asked to decide,” Horne said.
Whitefish’s insurance with the Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority covered the cost of the defense, but Stearns said the insurance does not cover the rest of the damages. He said the city is working with MMIA to see if more coverage is possible.
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