Judge rules bottling-plant initiative is legally binding

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The Montana Artesian Water Co. facility in Creston in this July 2017 file photo. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

A Flathead County District Court judge has ruled that a 2018 ballot initiative in which Flathead County voters overwhelmingly supported the expansion of the Egan Slough Zoning District to include the Montana Artesian Water Co. bottling plant property was legal and binding.

In a ruling issued Thursday in Montana Artesian’s countersuit over the ballot initiative, Judge Robert Allison denied Montana Artesian’s motion for partial summary judgment, stating “if the people want land-use planning in the face of elected officials congenitally opposed to it, they may have it through the initiative.

“Initiative 17-01 is not illegal, and does impact the entire county,” Allison stated.

Egan Slough community, Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water, and Creston area resident Amy Waller sued the Flathead County commissioners, the county Planning and Zoning Department, City-County Health Department and Montana Artesian Water Co. in an effort to have the court uphold the ballot initiative.

An investigation by the Flathead County Planning Department had concluded the plant is grandfathered within the expanded zoning district. The company had received a permit to withdraw 710 acre-feet of water, or about 230 million gallons annually, from the aquifer in the Egan Slough Zoning District.

In the ongoing litigation, during oral arguments May 21, attorney Victoria Marquis, representing Montana Artesian Water Co., claimed the measure was illegal on five counts. She argued the ballot initiative was illegal because, among other things, it violated the single-subject rule because the resolution called not only for an unzoned property to become zoned, but also for allowable uses within the facility to be limited.

The Egan Slough Zoning District places tight restrictions on commercial and industrial uses. Opponents of the bottling plant hoped the ballot initiative, which passed with 70 percent voter support, would halt the plant operations.

However, Attorney Jonathan Motl, secondary representation for Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water, said Montana Artesian’s argument was a weak one and that “the Supreme Court has never struck a citizen initiative on the basis of single-subject.”

But Judge Allison determined the statutes cited by Montana Artesian were “irrelevant” and “do not apply to the instant case where an existing district was expanded to add additional acreage.”

In his June 6 ruling, Allison further stated that because “these are county-wide interests, the electorate voting on an initiative consists of county-wide voters, not exclusively voters residing in the proposed zoning district.

“If the opposite was the case, and only voters in the proposed zoning district voted on the initiative, there would be the risk of formation of an archipelago of citizen-initiated zoning districts throughout the county, each interested primarily in its own self-interest. It is a county-wide interest that this not happen.”

Water for Flathead’s future, an advocacy organization that has stood alongside Yes” For Flathead Farms and Water, released a statement on the ruling, saying “This is a great victory for the people of the Flathead County who have fought so diligently to have their county representatives do something, anything to recognize the people’s will on this matter.”

Water for Flathead’s Future said its attorneys last week received notice that Montana Artesian and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation intend to appeal to the Montana State Court an earlier District Court ruling by Lewis and Clark District Judge Kathy Seeley that revoked the bottling plant’s water permit.

In another ongoing lawsuit against the bottling plant, opposing organizations are waiting to hear whether the facility is grandfathered into the expanded zoning district.

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.

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