A district judge returned authority of the so-called Whitefish planning “doughnut” to Flathead County in a major July 8 ruling that seeks to resolve a legal tug-of-war over control of the roughly two-mile area outside city limits.
Flathead County District Court Judge David Ortley granted summary judgment to the county in a complex case that has grown increasingly convoluted as parties in the lawsuit try to hammer out the jurisdictional battle.
Whitefish City Council must now decide if it will appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court. Attorney Terry Trieweiler represented the City of Whitefish and said he will await the council’s decision before moving forward with an appeal.
The lawsuit before Ortley was argued at a court hearing in February but has been ongoing for more than four years, beginning after the Flathead County Commission voted in 2008 to rescind a 2005 interlocal agreement with Whitefish over jurisdiction of the doughnut.
Whitefish sued in response to the rescindment and the issue has been bound up in litigation ever since. The city and county briefly tried to resolve the issue outside of court, which produced a new 2010 interlocal agreement that is a central issue in the lawsuit.
In November 2011, Whitefish city voters repealed the 2010 interlocal agreement through a referendum vote, after which four residents filed a lawsuit asking Ortley to declare the referendum illegal and void, arguing that it was in regards to an administrative, rather than legislative, act.
The city of Whitefish and four intervenors argue the referendum was legal and valid, and that the county and Whitefish should revert back to the original 2005 agreement.
Ortley ruled that the referendum was invalid, and that the 2010 agreement was in full force and effect. If the city or the intervenors do not appeal the decision, the county may resume planning in order to assume jurisdiction over the extraterritorial jurisdiction, or “doughnut.”
“This is the most pragmatic approach to this conundrum the court has heard yet,” Ortley wrote in his order, describing the county’s request.
Whitefish City Manager Chuck Stearns said the city council would determine the next steps at its July 15 meeting.
“I think it’s an unfortunate ruling,” he said. “I personally disagree with some of the train of thought in it.”
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