Judge Freezes Lakeside Plan with Injunction

By Beacon Staff

A Flathead County District Court judge placed an injunction on the 2010 Lakeside neighborhood plan last week, effectively freezing the plan until a December trial decides the validity of the process used to update it.

District Judge Stewart Stadler granted the injunction at a court hearing last week. The lawsuit, filed by 24 Lakeside and Somers area landowners, accuses the county of secretly conducting planning efforts as the Lakeside Neighborhood Planning Committee sought to update the 1995 version of the plan in 2007.

Flathead County, the planning committee and former county planning Director Jeff Harris were listed as the original defendants, but the plaintiffs have since dropped Harris from the suit.

The injunction means that the 2010 version of the plan is on hold, according to Deputy County Attorney Peter Steele.

“There won’t be any zoning there until the lawsuit’s settled,” Steele said. “Now that it’s frozen, you can’t do any planning pursuant to it.”

Steele also said Stadler’s order only applies to the primary injunction.

“He made it clear that it doesn’t nullify (the plan) or make it go away. That has to happen at trial,” Steele said.

One of the allegations leveled against the LNPC was the committee’s use of a Yahoo! group website, which was password protected and used to send e-mail notifications to committee members.

Since it was “invite-only,” the site clouded the transparency of the process, the suit says. At the Feb. 24 hearing, landowner Donna Thornton said by the time she and other landowners were granted access to the work group, 287 e-mails had been deleted.

“We wanted to have input,” Thornton said. “We couldn’t get information.”

However, LNPC secretary Barb Miller said the site was used largely for administrative purposes, such as sending committee members e-mail reminders for meetings and allowing the members to share draft documents.

Miller said anyone who wanted the information just had to contact the committee members and ask.

However, Miller also said she denied some of the public access to the work group when they asked, out of fear for viruses and spam e-mails.

“It was my decision to limit the access to the Yahoo! group for that reason,” she said during the hearing.

The website was never intended to limit public participation, Miller said, and added that no official documents were stored there.

Another issue raised during the hearing was the public notification process, which the plaintiffs say fell short of legal standards. Landowner Charles Lapp said he did not receive the initial survey sent out about the updates.

Lapp also said he was not notified about multiple meetings, which were held at committee members’ private residences or workplaces.

“Things need to be notified,” Lapp said. “The public needs to be given the opportunity (to participate.)”

Miller said anyone who wanted to know about meetings could have contacted the committee members. Plaintiff attorney Tammi Fisher, however, noted that the members’ contact information was not listed on the public website.

Currently, the trial date is scheduled for December.

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