Flathead County officials have been given until Dec. 31 to provide a district court judge with detailed information surrounding their investigation into whether the Montana Artesian Water Company’s bottling plant near Creston is in violation of the Egan Slough Zoning District Regulations, according to a recent court order.
The order by District Judge Robert Allison is in response to a complaint filed in September by stakeholder groups opposed to the Montana Artesian Water Company, a water-bottling plant started by Egan Slough landowner Lew Weaver. Weaver received a permit from 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 bottling facility have publicly raised concerns on multiple legal fronts, mounting efforts to challenge the facility from beginning production.
In 2016, a group of landowners asked the Flathead County Commission to expand the Egan Slough Zoning District, a designation created in 2002 to preserve the land’s agricultural character. The zoning district prohibits some industrial uses and limits new parcels to no less than 80 acres.
Despite hearing testimony from dozens of residents who supported the zoning expansion, the commission rejected their request, prompting the landowners to sue the county and lead a charge to qualify a ballot initiative.
Passing overwhelmingly with 70 percent of the vote, the ballot measure expanded the 1,150-acre Egan Slough Zoning District to include an additional 530 acres. Land added to the district now includes the site of Weaver’s bottling facility, which isn’t in full production but is capable of producing about 30 gallons a minute — a violation of the zoning district’s requirements, according to neighbors who filed a complaint with Flathead County officials.
Since then, county planning officials have struggled with how to administer the zoning regulations, while the Flathead County Attorney’s Office has been investigating two complaints filed in June regarding Montana Artesian Water Company’s production.
Judge Allison wrote that the “delay in the resolution of these matters is unreasonable,” and ordered the county to file a formal response by 5 p.m. on Dec. 31, instructing the county to explain its position on both the legality of the initiative, whether officials intend to enforce it against the company and the findings of the investigation.
“We are pleased that the court is forcing the county to address this matter, or provide reasons why it cannot do so,” Amy Waller, of Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit, said. “The county has had months to address this matter. The will of the voters needs to be heard.”
Under the Egan Slough Zoning regulations, the county is required to investigate reports of zoning violations. Shortly after the initiative was passed banning commercial and industrial activities in the area, local residents filed a zoning violation complaint with the county.
“The county failed to respond to the request to enforce the initiative or take any action, leading to the current lawsuit,” according to Waller.
The landowners alleged that the water bottling plant was gearing up for commercial operation in violation of the June 5 initiative. At the time the initiative was certified, the company had no commercial operations, the landowners assert.
But Darryl James, a spokesman for Montana Artesian Water Company, said production had begun prior to the certification of the ballot initiative, including the assembly of equipment and the receipt of regulatory permits.
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