Flathead County commissioners voted 2-1 Monday to pursue a settlement on the North Shore Ranch Subdivision lawsuit, with an amendment that provides for a 30-day deadline that allows various entities to purchase the entire property and make it protected land.
The commissioners also voted 3-0 to release all depositions related to the settlement to the public.
Commissioners Dale Lauman and Jim Dupont voted to amend and accept the settlement, which originally had the county pay out $1 million to the developers and pay for a certain linear footage of roads within the subdivision.
In the amended version of the settlement, those terms would remain the same and be applicable if discussions on an all-out land purchase go awry.
The amendment also included new terms for the county’s monetary payout to the developer. The original terms said the county would pay $500,000 within 30 days of settling, followed by two $250,000 payments.
In the new payment schedule, the county would pay still pay $500,000, but the developer requested $175,000 three days after the amendment’s acceptance as a show of good faith, according to Alan McCormick, the county’s attorney from the Montana Association of Counties. The county would pay another $100,000 within three days of filing the consent decree with the court and $225,000 if the court approves the settlement.
The subdivision developer, Kleinhans Farm Estates LLC, would credit the $175,000 toward the entire purchase price of the property if an agreement can be reached by April 5. If the land were not purchased, the $175,000 would go toward the original terms of the settlement.
Flathead Land Trust and the Bonneville Power Administration are two entities involved with purchasing the property. If an agreement can be made on a price, the land will most likely end up as publicly owned property, according to Brad Seaman of FLT.
“Our goal is to put this property into the hands of the people of Montana,” Seaman said. “We don’t know what form that will take, whether it be entirely in the hands of the state itself or part of it goes to the county.
“It appears that everyone is approaching this in both sides on good faith.”
Commissioner Joe Brenneman voted against accepting the settlement, with or without the amendment. He said he thought the county should take the lawsuit to trial because other entities could still purchase the property from the developers, regardless of the county’s involvement.
One of Brenneman’s biggest concerns was that hunting would not be allowed on the land, something he said was integral to the “soul” of the county. And while the settlement might make monetary sense by mitigating the possibility of millions more in damages if a jury rules for the developer, Brenneman said he would rather see the suit go to trial.
“One thing we cannot destroy is the soul of Flathead County,” Brenneman said.
Brenneman also said he was wary about taking a good faith agreement that assumes the developer would not raise the property’s asking price once the commission agrees on the settlement.
McCormick said that though there was not a document with signatures preventing that scenario, the county would pursue legal action against the developers if they violate the good faith agreement.
“(The developer) understands that you can’t do a ‘gotcha,’” McCormick said.
Lauman expressed confidence in the possibility of an all-out property purchase, saying he thought there was a good chance the organizations could put enough money together.
“If that were successful that would be to the greater satisfaction to the people in the county,” Lauman said.
Dupont said he largely agreed with Brenneman’s sentiment on the soul of the county, but he was also concerned about the rights of the private property owner.
He was also frustrated by the lack of openness during the settlement process, saying that attorney-client privilege “puts the public in a pickle” when it comes to understanding the commission’s reasons for choosing a settlement. With that in mind, the commission decided to release all of the lawsuit’s depositions to the public.
Dupont settled on the idea of avoiding even higher damages against the county as his reason to vote for accepting the amended settlement.
“I have to go with my gut that this is the right thing to do,” Dupont said.
The decision to accept the settlement comes a week after the commission heard significant public comment against the original terms, which included paying the developers $600,000 to open up 150 acres for public access and $400,000 in restitution, as well as the cost of the linear footage of roads laid out in an earlier, smaller version of the subdivision.
Settlement acceptance also meant the county would approve a new preliminary plat for the subdivision.
The settlement comes almost two years after the commissioners voted 2-1 to reject the 367-acre subdivision plan over flooding and seismic activity concerns, as well as the development’s proximity to the Flathead Waterfowl Production Area. The developers sued the county after the commissioners’ denial.
A judge must agree on the terms of the agreement for a settlement to be finalized.
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