Voters to decide zoning proposal’s fate

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Flathead County voters will decide whether to expand a zoning district in an agricultural area near Creston, after a petition secured enough signatures by Tuesday to place the question on a future county-wide election ballot.

The proposal is identical to one that was unanimously struck down by the Flathead County commissioners last year, and is being advanced by a group of landowners and volunteers concerned with the potential impacts of a planned water-bottling plant that would fall within the boundaries of the proposed Egan Slough Zoning District expansion.

The group — Yes! for Flathead’s Farms and Water — needed to secure signatures from 15 percent of the county’s registered voters, or a minimum of 10,048, by Tuesday’s deadline. The Flathead County Election Department on Wednesday determined that the petition had received 12,455 verified signatures after 1,913 were tossed out as duplicates or for lacking sufficient information to be counted.

The existing zoning district, established in 2002, overlays 1,150 acres of mostly agricultural land southwest of Creston in the Lower Flathead Valley. The land classification prohibits some industrial land uses and limits new parcel sizes to no less than 80 acres.

Under the proposed expansion, an additional 530 acres would be added to the existing district.

It’s the only portion of Flathead County zoned under a citizen-initiated process known as Part 1 zoning. The district was created by local landowners to preserve the agricultural character of the area after a youth camp was proposed on 160 acres then owned by the Salvation Army. Neighbors worried that the land was unprotected from future subdivision.

This time around, the zoning effort is driven by concerns over a proposed water-bottling plant by the Montana Artesian Water Co. on land owned by Lew Weaver, who owns the company. Beyond the withdrawals associated with a large water-right permit Weaver is seeking from the state, many members of the farming community say the industrial development could damage the scenic, agrarian landscape they were hoping to protect by creating the zoning district in 2002.

Kristen Larson, a volunteer with the petition group, said beyond the immediate fears surrounding Weaver’s proposal, the zoning would discourage other water-bottling companies from following suit if and when the Montana Artesian Water Co. plant is approved.

“It’s an investment in our future, as the Flathead Valley,” Larson told the Daily Inter Lake in an interview last month. “If we can stop it, I think that would be a positive for the whole Flathead Valley. We don’t want any further industrial changes to that area, we want to keep it farmland.”

Weaver has opposed the new zoning expansion since it was first brought before the commissioners last year, and says he’s being singled out by an effort that aims to restrict his property rights.

Critics of Weaver and his proposed facility point out that his opposition to the zoning expansion flies in the face of his earlier support for the creation of the district in 2002, which included a portion of his property. He acknowledged that reversal in a Daily Inter Lake editorial board meeting last month, but said the motives of the zoning supporters are different this time.

“I’m not putting the land into a subdivision, I’m putting a small operation in to augment my income so I can maintain the open space and the farming area that I have,” he said. “It’s a big portion of my property, over 420 acres of my property in there, which restricts me from estate-type things.”

Flathead County approved the district-expansion petition for signature gathering on March 29.

Flathead County Clerk and Recorder Deb Pierson previously said the question of whether to expand the zone will likely land on the next county-wide ballot, which would be for the June 5, 2018 primary elections.

A final determination will be made in consultation with the county’s legal department. However, Flathead County Deputy Attorney Tara Fugina declined to provide details on when that vote will take place, and did not return calls on Thursday.

If Flathead County’s voters ultimately back the initiative, the district will be officially expanded once the results are certified.

A determination on whether the proposed plant would fit within the eligible land uses for the expanded district would then fall to the Egan Slough Zoning Commission.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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