Any cyclist who’s poured his or her fair share of sweat on the highway knows it’s particularly hard to stop on gravel. When that loose, wobbly feeling surges kinetically along the tubing to various points of bodily contact, the best thing to do is just let go of the break levers and ride it out, hopefully avoiding painful road rash.

The strategy is somewhat less advisable in local government, as Missoula County commissioners learned May 30 when the board finally pulled the emergency brake on corporate plans to build a gravel pit near Lolo after months of trying to coast through the controversy.

Since last fall, the proposed development site—now a pastoral hayfield—has been a constant source of distress for nearby residents. The development outfit hoping to construct the facility, Knife River Corp., ultimately envisions a planned community built around an artificial lake created by the quarrying operations. Some folks in that part of the county imagine more of an industrial wasteland.

However, instead of taking a stand on the issue, the commissioners have been playing a game of liability hot potato with the State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Like two parents caught with a demanding child, both government bodies hoped the other would play the role of the heavy and say no to the gravel pit idea.

Missoula County finally spoke up when the very real possibility emerged that a Helena judge might force the DEQ to hand over the construction permits ASAP. At an emergency meeting, the county temporarily rezoned the plot for residential usage.

Game over? Not hardly. Knife River, Simon says sue the county.

“We were looking down the barrel of a gun,” says deputy county attorney Mike Sehestedt. “Maybe our action is challengeable, but, had the commissioners waited, we would be looking at clearly having a vested interest to the gravel pit but no standing in the [DEQ] case.”

What remains to be seen is whether the developer plans to pursue a claim on the rezoning now, or wait until its litigation with the DEQ is finished. There is a chance—though an outside one—that the DEQ could win its case and force the Knife River through long, possibly project-scuttling, environmental review process.

Chris Swartley, Knife River’s attorney, did not return phone calls as of press time to elaborate on his client’s filing plans.

But, whatever happens, it’s going to involve lawyers. But that’s life—everybody gets sued. All you can really do is wear your nicest shirt and blame everything on the guy with the most foreign-sounding last name.
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