Judge orders commissioners to reconsider Egan Slough expansion

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

Opponents of the Montana Artesian Water Company’s bottling plant are pleased after a Flathead County judge sided with Egan Slough landowners seeking to expand their zoning district.

In 2016, Egan Slough residents petitioned to expand the area’s agricultural zoning district to include the controversial bottling plant’s location. The Flathead County commissioners rejected their proposal, drawing a lawsuit from the Egan Slough Community, a citizens’ group.

On Tuesday, District Judge Robert Allison sided with the plaintiffs, granting them summary judgment and remanding the decision to the commissioners for further consideration.

“This is a great day for farms and water in the Flathead,” said Egan Slough Community member Amy Waller in a press release.

In his ruling, Judge Allison found that the Board of Commissioners had given insufficient heed to the concerns raised by public commenters.

“The Board did not meaningfully address the various issues the public had cited in support of expansion and why expansion would not benefit the public on these issues,” he wrote. “Since the Board failed to sufficiently consider the public comments, their decision [to reject the expansion] was unreasonable and an abuse of discretion.”

Allison proceeded to give instances where the commissioners appeared to sidestep or overlook the issues raised in the comments. When concerns were raised about water quality, he noted, they had deferred the issue to state agencies and “made no findings of fact whatsoever.” In some cases, the judge found that they had dismissed expert reports “without providing any factual basis for doing so.”

The ruling also challenged the commissioners’ reasons for denying the petition. Those reasons included Montana Artesian founder Lew Weaver’s rights as a property owner.

In a passage likely to resonate with the many irrigators who have opposed the venture, Allison wrote that “the Board focused on the property rights of the Weavers, but the Board failed to address the property rights of of the other affected landowners in the proposed expansion area or the county overall...It is an abuse of discretion to consider the property rights of one landowner to the exclusion of other landowners in the county overall.”

Waller told the Daily Inter Lake that the Community’s attorneys had requested a decision within 45 days, but a deadline for reconsideration was not included in the court’s order.

County Commissioners Phil Mitchell, Pam Holmquist and Gary Krueger did not reply to a request for comment. Flathead County voters will face the zoning district expansion in a June 5 ballot measure initiated by another organization, Yes for Flathead Farms and Water.

Meanwhile, two other groups are challenging the bottling plant’s state-level approval. Water for Flathead’s Future and the Flathead Lakers are appealing the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s decision to grant Montana Artesian a water-use permit. While this is a separate effort from the zoning-district expansion, all the groups are united in their opposition to the bottling plant.

Despite this week’s events, that facility continues to gear up for operations. “There’s nothing really surprising” in the judge’s ruling, said Montana Artesian consultant Darryl James, adding that it hadn’t been affected by the decision.

He said the company was waiting to receive its water-use permit, and that “I think they’re virtually ready to go” for bottling.

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

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