County asked to set election or approve expansion

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The leaders of an effort to expand a zoning district east of Kalispell to include land where a water-bottling plant is planned have asked the Flathead County commissioners to set a Nov. 7 election for a ballot issue on the district expansion. A second option, their attorney suggested, is for the commissioners to reconsider their earlier vote and approve the Egan Slough Zoning District expansion.

Kalispell attorney Tom Esch, representing John and Amy Waller, spoke to the commissioners Monday, noting a recent petition drive to create a ballot issue for the district expansion was successful. The drive — pushed along by Yes for Flathead Farms and Water — collected 12,455 valid signatures in less than 60 days.

“That’s a significant number,” Esch said, adding that 10,067 signatures were needed to put the district expansion to a countywide public vote.

Roughly 5,500 signatures were collected during the May 25 special election for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat.

The goal of expanding the district is to include acreage where Lew Weaver of the Montana Artesian Water Co. plans to build a bottling facility and thereby stop the commercial project.

In November 2016 the commissioners denied a citizen-initiated request to add 530 acres to the Egan Slough Zoning District, a tract of 1,150 acres of largely agricultural land near Creston. Egan Slough neighbors then sued the county, asking the court to declare the commissioners’ decision unlawful and an abuse of discretion. The litigation is still pending.

Regarding the successful petition drive for a ballot issue on the matter, Esch said the county election supervisor has certified that “the matter is ripe to be put on the ballot.

“The law requires the election be held at the next primary or general election … Our interpretation is that it must be set Nov. 7, and you need to set it 85 days before that,” Esch told the commissioners. “So that’s our request.”

The Election Department said an 85-day notification puts the deadline at Aug. 14 to include the issue on the Nov. 7 ballot. The Nov. 7 election includes city elections, but otherwise is an off-year for county and state races.

The Wallers’ second request to the commissioners, delivered through Esch, is to approve the zoning district expansion.

“The decision whether to have an election is back in your hands,” Esch said. “We believe, based on the way we got the signatures, that this is not just a local issue. These signatures came from all over the valley. It shows great support for the expansion of this zone.

“We’d ask you to change your mind and just adopt it, and not have to do an election,” Esch continued. “There’s never a wrong time to do the right thing.”

The commissioners did not discuss the Wallers’ requests. Commissioner Phil Mitchell, however, pointed out the election for the Egan Slough issue will cost the county $120,000.

Added Esch, “Not to argue, but that’s why we’re asking you to adopt the petition.”

Kalispell attorney Jonathan Smith, who is also providing counsel on the Egan Slough issue, told the commissioners there is a 60-day deadline to adopt a resolution (approving the petition) to avoid an election, and the timeline began in late June.

The Wallers were involved in the original zoning effort that used citizen-initiated zoning to create the Egan Slough Zoning District in 2002. At the time, farmers and other landowners rallied to preserve farmland when a youth camp was proposed on 160 acres.

Sixty percent of the affected property owners were required to petition for the Egan Slough Zoning District when it was created, and roughly 65 percent of property owners supported the proposed district expansion last year.

The commissioners maintained the zoning effort was an attempt to stop an individual landowner from going through the permitting process to set up a water bottling facility. They asserted the county would be restricting property rights by expanding the district.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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