Voters will decide expansion’s merits

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When Flathead County voters head to the polls June 5, they’ll be asked whether 530 acres should be added to the Egan Slough Zoning District.

This expansion, placed on the ballot by Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water, a citizen’s group, would bring Montana Artesian Water Company’s controversial bottling plant into the Egan Slough Planning and Zoning District.

Ballot initiative Egan Slough 17-01 is one of several campaigns launched by opponents of the plant. Amy Waller, one of Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water’s co-founders, described the group as “energized and motivated” heading into the vote.

“We are working hard to let voters know how important it is to vote for the Egan Slough initiative to protect our farms and water and our fisheries from the bottling plant,” Waller said.

Montana Artesian holds a permit to withdraw 710 acre-feet of water — about 230 million gallons — per year from the aquifer beneath Creston. But a separate permit to discharge wastewater into the Flathead River would keep the firm’s operations at a much smaller scale, until it gained a permit for more discharge.

The plant has drawn intense scrutiny in recent years, stirring debate about how it could impact local groundwater levels, water quality, vehicle traffic and other factors. Residents have tried to block the plant at multiple points in the regulatory process.

The expansion, if successful, would bring the plant into an area zoned primarily for agricultural and residential land use. On its website, Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water says that this will mean “keeping this area in agricultural uses, and protecting water, lakes, and fish from the negative impacts of the water bottling plant.”

It’s not clear whether an expansion would shutter the plant. The zoning district’s regulations state that, “at the time a zoning district to which these regulations are applied is created,” any nonconforming facility “may continue in the manner and to the extent that it existed or was being used at the time of adoption of these regulations.”

Jonathan Smith, a lawyer and former employee of the Flathead County Attorney’s Office, said that “the general rule is (that) what you’re doing when the property is zoned, you can continue doing, even if it’s a nonconforming use.”

However, he added that “the courts have been pretty strict on saying (that) you can’t expand that use.”

Regardless of where the legal lines exist, Montana Artesian and its opponents have little common ground. Montana Artesian spokesperson Darryl James called the ballot initiative “an affront to private property rights.” He noted that the project had been through the required regulatory processes, and argued that the initiative’s backers had “put the issue in front of the community with no other intent than to stop the project, and that’s not why we do zoning.”

He said his employer is also “very concerned about the entire county being asked to vote on private land use within a 530-acre area.”

But in an email, Waller noted that “the Montana Constitution allows citizens the right to petition and place issues on the ballot. 12,455 voters signed the petition and agree that expanding the Egan Slough agricultural district is a county wide (sic) issue.”

County voters will decide the expansion’s merits in the June 5 election.

Meanwhile, the bottling plant faces two other opposition campaigns. In March, Flathead County District Judge Robert Allison ordered the county commissioners to reconsider an expansion proposal brought by Egan Slough landowners. They will review audio testimony from the 2016 hearing on this topic on May 24 at 9:30 a.m. While members of the public may attend this meeting, the commissioners will not take new comments. Waller said that, if successful, the ballot initiative would allow the expansion to proceed without the commissioners’ approval.

In addition, Water for Flathead’s Future and the Flathead Lakers are appealing the state’s water-use permit allowing Montana Artesian to take 710 acre-feet of water annually.

Despite these challenges, James said that Montana Artesian is nearly ready for operations. The plant’s production line has been assembled, and the firm is awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. James expects to receive that approval in a matter of weeks.

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

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