Judge to decide Egan Slough lawsuit this month

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Tom Tucker of Creston points to a map during a public hearing on the Egan Slough Zoning District at the Flathead County Courthouse in this file photo. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake file)

March promises to be a busy month for the Montana Artesian Water Company dispute.

As the firm’s Creston bottling facility prepares to begin operations, its opponents are eager for a judge’s ruling on one of their tactics.

In 2016, Egan Slough residents sought to expand their zoning district, whose regulations generally limit landowners to agricultural, residential and low-impact commercial uses, to include the bottling plant’s location.

But the Flathead County Commissioners rejected their proposal, citing concerns about Weaver’s rights as a property owner and the number of non-compliant properties that the enlarged distruct would include.

That wasn’t sufficient in the eyes of a group called Egan Slough Community, which sued the county commissioners. Both sides presented their case in a Feb. 19 hearing in Flathead District Court.

“They have to articulate a reason” for rejecting a citizen-initiated zoning change, Kim Wilson, attorney for the Community, told the Daily Inter Lake. “Our belief and our position is that they abused their discretion and abused their position and disregarded lots of evidence” in favor of the expansion.

“We disagree with the decision put forth by the plaintiffs,” said deputy county attorney Caitlin Overland. “We think the county commissioners did a sufficient job of considering the evidence.”

Water for Flathead’s Future, which also opposes the bottling plant but is not a plaintiff in this case, wrote on its website that “Egan Slough Community’s side of the court room was packed.” One of the attendees, Creston resident Vance Carolin, said that in over a decade of residency, he had never seen a local issue draw so much interest.

Judge Robert Allison said that he would issue a ruling by the end of March. He can either affirm their decision to reject the zone expansion, or remand it to them for further consideration.

If their rejection gets affirmed, or if the commissioners decide to reject it again, voters will be able to decide whether to expand the zoning district in a June 5 county ballot initiative. Carolin said that “the commissioners could do the right thing and not have to cost the county any more money by putting it on the ballot, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Fighting against the plant also continues on a separate front. Last week, the Inter Lake reported that Water for Flathead’s Future had appealed the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s decision to grant Montana Artesian a water-use permit. Flathead Lakers has filed its own appeal of that decision. It’s not clear how long these actions will take.

In the meantime, Montana Artesian consultant Darryl James said that the firm’s production line will be operational in four to six weeks.

“The intent is to start production as soon as possible,” he said.

“I think it will demonstrate that there’s not going to be any noticeable impact on any neighboring wells,” he said, reiterating Montana Artesian’s stance throughout this long controversy.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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