How did all of this come about?
The media reported in 2014 that southern Stillwater County was being considered for oil and gas drilling. A group of concerned Stillwater County landowners organized to seek the creation of a Citizen-Initiated Zoning District in southern Stillwater County. Under Montana Code § 76-2-101, landowners can petition the County Commissioners to create a planning and zoning district, and the Commissioners can create a district if:
(1) 60% of the affected real property owners in the proposed district sign a petition and
(2) the commissioners find that creation of the district is in “the public interest or convenience.”
The Stillwater County landowners were concerned because oil and gas activity involves significant burdens and costs that are caused, and properly should be absorbed, by the oil and gas operators. The Petition seeks to
(1) protect and preserve the ways of life and natural resources within the district and (2) minimize cost-shifting away from the oil and gas operator to either the County or other property owners.
Why create the CIZ district?
The district would protect both county and private property from potential damage by oil and gas development by regulating, but not banning, oil and gas activity within the District.
Who signed the petition?
Beginning in 2014, a group of Stillwater County landowners has been obtaining landowner signatures to support a CIZ petition to Stillwater County to adopt
(1) a CIZ district and
(2) regulations regarding oil and gas activities.
Stillwater County was asked for guidance regarding signature rules, but no guidance was provided. More than 60% of the surface estate property owners in the proposed district, over 550 landowners, signed the petition, which was submitted to Stillwater County in November 2015.
How did Stillwater County delay the process?
November 10, 2015: Beartooth Front CIZ Petition presented to the county commissioners signatures with over 50% of the proposed CIZ land mass and over 60% of surface estate landowners signatures within the proposed CIZ District.
March 22, 2016: Petitioners receive signature verification requirements from Clerk & Recorder. Petitioners agree to obtain affidavits for over 100 individuals who signed the Petition in a representative capacity.
July 8, 2016: County Attorney notifies petitioners regarding verification process and agrees to accept the method for acquiring affidavits for persons signing petition in representative capacity.
February 9, 2017: Petition re-submitted to county commissioners with over 60% of surface estate landowners’ signatures.
April 11, 2017: County Commissioners decide that the Petition cut-off date as to property ownership is April 14, 2017, and they state that signature verification will be completed on August 9, 2017.
August 23, 2017: County Attorney notified Petitioners through their attorney that the Petition was signed by 60.08% of affected surface estate landowners., but states that she is going to request a Montana Attorney General Opinion as to whether mineral interests need to be included for purposes of the 60% requirement. This is the first time any County official has mentioned that mineral interests might be included.
December 2017: The Attorney General declines to provide an opinion in regard to mineral rights.
January 30, 2018: Clerk & Recorder reports to County Commissioners that Petitioners have not satisfied the 60% requirement because mineral rights owners were not included. After all of the many delays, the County advised that the Petition failed because mineral interests must be included within the 60% calculation.
We believe that the County is wrong as to the mineral interest question.
February 24, 2018
Beartooth Front Coalition, joined by individual petitioners, file suit against Stillwater County.
Are there citizen-initiated zoning districts elsewhere in Montana?
More than 100 of these CIZ districts have been created around Montana. To our knowledge, mineral interests have not been included in the 60% calculation in any of those cases.
CIZ statute does not require inclusion of mineral interests in 60% calculation. Montana Code Annotated § 76-2-101, the CIZ petition provision, does not mention mineral interests.
Including mineral interests in the 60% calculation could lead to absurd results because there might be many mineral interests as to a property but only one surface estate owner.
Requiring inclusion of mineral interests in the 60% calculation would be impossible to accomplish because there is no database from which to identify the owners of mineral interests.
Why is there a law suit against Stillwater County?
We reluctantly decided to start a legal action against the County. We did not want litigation, which will be expensive to both the landowners and the County, but (1) the County is ignoring the will of the landowners of Stillwater County within the proposed district and (2) we believe that including mineral interests in the 60% calculation is wrong and would make the CIZ statute impossible for landowners to apply.
We have filed a legal action to preserve the rights of Montana landowners to join together to create CIZ districts to protect their property and their ways of life.
What are we trying to achieve with the lawsuit?
The lawsuit asks the court to do several things:
- Issue a “writ of mandamus,” which will force the County to follow its own rules and certify that we have achieved the 60% of signatures required to move the petition forward.
- Make a declaratory ruling regarding citizen-initiated zoning that states that Montana law does not require any mineral interests to be counted toward the 60% signature threshold.
- Issue a temporary restraining order that prohibits the Commissioners from adopting any policy regarding citizen-initiated zoning that includes mineral interests while the lawsuit is being considered.
- Bar the Commissioners from retroactively requiring us to get the signatures of any mineral owners.
- Require the Commissioners to pay our relevant legal costs and court fees.