Flathead County voters turned out in overwhelming favor of an expanded zoning district near Creston on Tuesday, a move they hope will preclude development of a controversial water-bottling plant proposed by a local landowner.
A total of 17,527 voters, or 70 percent, turned out in favor of expanding the district, while 7,552 voted against it.
Dubbed Initiative 17-01 on the June 5 primary election ballot, the measure will expand the 1,150-acre Egan Slough Zoning District first designated in 2002 to include an additional 530 acres. Land added to the district, which now includes the site of the proposed bottling facility, is zoned to restrict certain industrial uses and limits lot sizes to 80-acre minimums.
A grassroots citizens group called Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water led the charge to qualify the ballot initiative and was clear about its intent — to derail a company’s efforts to develop a water-bottling facility near the Flathead River.
At the heart of the dispute is the Montana Artesian Water Company, a water-bottling plant proposed by Egan Slough landowner Lew Weaver. Weaver received a permit with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation that would allow his company to produce up to 140,000 water bottles per hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The water right would allow Weaver’s company to receive 710 acre feet of water annually, equaling roughly 1.2 billion 20-ounce water bottles.
Neighbors to the proposed bottling facility have publicly raised concerns and challenged the facility on multiple fronts.
In 2016, landowners asked the Flathead County Commission to expand the district, but their request was rejected.
In March, Flathead County District Judge Robert Allison ordered that the Flathead County Commission reconsider the zoning district expansion, ruling that its members didn’t adequately respond to public comment when considering the expansion.
Meanwhile, a separate grassroots group, Water for Flathead’s Future, as well as the Flathead Lakers, have appealed the DNRC’s water-use permit to Montana Artesian Water Company.
For his part, Weaver opposed the district expansion because it singles him out and is designed specifically to prevent his business plans and restrict his property rights. However, Weaver supported creating the original zoning district in 2002, which his critics have raised as evidence of his hypocrisy.
Passage of the resolution means that properties within the district’s borders “will be immediately added,” according to the initiative’s language, however it makes an exception for “non-conforming parcels at the time of the zoning enactment.”
Whether or not Weaver’s company will fall under such an exception isn’t yet clear given that it hasn’t yet begun operating, though it has secured the state permit.
Organizers with Yes! for Flathead Farms and Water as well as landowners who oppose the bottling plant acknowledged that the ballot initiative’s success didn’t necessary spell an end to their efforts to prevent the bottling plant from operating.
But Amy Waller, who lives and owns property near the proposed plant, and her attorney, Tom Esch, filed a complaint last August and a request for a writ of mandamus that would have slated the ballot initiative for the Nov. 7, 2017 election, prior to assembly of the plant’s production line.
“An election delayed is an election denied,” Esch wrote in the complaint at the time.
On Tuesday, Esch, the former Flathead County attorney, said the initiative’s overwhelming margin of victory was evidence that citizens’ voices had been heard.