County sued over decision

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Developers of the recently rejected North Shore Ranch subdivision near Somers filed a lawsuit Wednesday afternoon.

The civil complaint seeks a reversal of the Flathead County commissioners' 2-1 vote that denied the project's preliminary plat on April 23.

North Shore Ranch would involve a 286-lot development on more than 360 acres near Somers bordering a waterfowl production area. About half of the project consists of open space and a 73-acre conservation area.

The county Planning Board voted 5-1 in April to recommend approval of the development.

The attorney for the developers, Bill VanCanagan, said the lawsuit was unfortunate but necessary because the commissioners' decision affects hundreds of landowners, especially those with PPL Montana flood easements on their property.

The complaint notes that Commissioners Gary Hall and Joe Brenneman stated that the commissioners should not approve subdivisions on land where flood easements exist "as a matter of policy."

That policy does not exist in Flathead County, and the developers claim that since 2003, more than 30 subdivisions have been approved where flood easements exist.

Flood easements date back to the 1930s and 1940s and give the power company (which operates Kerr Dam at the foot of Flathead Lake) the right to flood properties by raising the lake level.

"If that is their complaint, they are indeed grasping at straws," said Brenneman, who had not yet seen the complaint.

Brenneman said his comment was not meant to write new law but to reflect his personal opinion.

"It's my opinion that it's not a good idea for public agencies to be approving subdivisions on property with flood easements," Brenneman said.

The lawsuit also contends that the commissioners' decision was not based on the law and contradicted the findings of the staff report from the Planning and Zoning Office.

In April, Planning Board members stated that the developers had met or exceeded county subdivision requirements, and that they saw no legal grounds to deny the project. The board did, however, have issues with the proposal, especially the project's density.

Hundreds of comments submitted by the public also opposed the development.

"Subdivision regulations are clear," VanCanagan said. "If a developer meets all the requirements, the county must approve the project. They not only met the requirements, they exceeded them. The work the developers undertook on this project is unprecedented."

When making his decision to deny the preliminary plat, Hall praised the developers and the project, but said that public safety concerns were too great to approve the project. Brenneman called the developers' efforts "Herculean."

Flooding concerns, impacts on wildlife at the nearby waterfowl production area and potential liquefaction of soils during an earthquake were all reasons cited by Hall in his decision. Hall was concerned that the county could be held liable for approving the subdivision if flooding occurred.

"That's a health, safety and welfare issue we can't ignore," Hall said at the April meeting.

Reporter Michael Richeson may be reached at 758-4459 or by e-mail at mricheson@dailyinterlake.com

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