Supreme Court Sides Against Power Plant

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The state Supreme Court ruled Friday that Cascade County illegally zoned property for a proposed natural gas power plant, reversing a lower court decision that had sided with the county and Southern Montana Electric.

The high court, in a 4-3 decision, said the special zoning set up for the beleaguered project would benefit a single landowner “to the detriment of the surrounding farmers and ranchers.” It also denied a motion by the plant developers to toss out the appeal since they had already spent millions preparing the 668 acres for the gas-fired plant.

Construction of the plant had been hinging on the court decision. SME had already secured permits and $85 million in financing for first-phase construction.

SME General Manager Tim Gregori said his group will be asking the court to reconsider its decision because it hinged on outdated and erroneous facts.

The decision references plans for a coal plant and rail line that were abandoned amid controversy in favor of the gas plant, Gregori said. It also implies that SME did not have permits lined up, but it does, he said.

“There are times when the Supreme Court decides that they may have made an error in a decision based on the facts that are presented to them down the road, and we think it is one of those times,” Gregori said. “There are a number of material facts that the court dealt with that we think are inaccurate.”

SME plans to build the facility two phases, with the first phase providing 46 megawatts of electricity and the second phase bringing the total to 120 megawatts.

The zoning changed the land from agricultural to heavy industrial. Neighbors and environmentalists argued the zoning unfairly damaged the surrounding area for the benefit of the plant.

Three Supreme Court justices disagreed strongly with the majority’s decision.

Justice Jim Rice said he does not believe SME has been given justice in the case, and wrote that the majority of the court unfairly details SME’s missteps in the project without legal reason.

“I can only surmise that they are made solely to discredit SME or the project,” Rice said in his opinion.

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