County trumps land barons

In a decision that stands to impact development statewide, the Montana Supreme Court last week struck a portion of what's been referred to as the "Land Baron Law," a mandate that provided large property owners the power to veto local growth plans.

"A large landowner such as Plum Creek won't be able to throw a wrench in local community efforts to chart their own destinies," says Missoula attorney Tim Bechtold, who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Williams vs. Missoula County Commissioners, et al.

Until last week, the statute enabled Montana landowners who claimed 50 percent of agricultural or forested land within any given district to veto pending county development directives. That's what five landowners attempted to do in 2010, when protesting growth restrictions being crafted by the Board of Missoula County Commissioners for 422 acres north of Lolo.

The health and safety implications of a proposed gravel pit prompted area residents to lobby the County Commissioners to create the new restrictions. Commissioners complied, first with an interim zoning ordinance and then with permanent mandates that were slated to go online in 2010, when the five landowners filed their protests.

Under the Land Baron Law, such a protest automatically stalled any new restrictions for one year. Subsequent vetoes could enable large property owners to fend off growth plans indefinitely.

Bechtold's client, L. Reed Williams, owns property adjacent to the proposed mine. He didn't think the law was fair and filed a lawsuit arguing that the Land Baron Law violated constitutional guarantees to equal protection, voting rights and due process. The Supreme Court sided with Williams and tossed the provision.

Missoula County Deputy Attorney James McCubbin, who represented the county in the case, says that the decision is significant because community leaders have historically been hesitant to invest time and resources developing growth plans under fear that protests could derail the entire process. "Zoning hasn't really been attempted in the state in many cases because of these provisions," McCubbin says.

In Missoula County, the change means that the Lolo gravel pit won't be allowed. It also means that county commissioners, rather than large landowners, will have the final say in growth decisions.

McCubbin notes, however, that county officials will continue weighing all interests, including those of entities with significant property holdings, when planning for the future. "We take public participation very seriously," he says.

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