A long-running dispute on the legality of a ranch’s business operations in Lolo has reached settlement – with some contingencies.
A marathon 12 1/2-hour settlement conference last Friday between Missoula County and Sterling and SuzAnne Miller, owners of Dunrovin Ranch, was mediated by Helena attorney Kim Wilson. It laid the groundwork for an agreement that was signed by both parties Wednesday.
Dunrovin will continue in the business of offering summer camps, horseback rides and expeditions, training clinics and special events, SuzAnne Miller said Wednesday afternoon.
An even bigger emphasis will be put on its live osprey camera that has gained worldwide attention, and a second camera that will offer live streamed programs and classes.
“I think the support that the public showed was a motivating factor (in the settlement),” Miller said. “I also want to thank (Commissioner) Michele Landquist, who stepped in and tried to move things forward and successfully got everybody to the table.”
The Millers will obtain a new certificate of subdivision approval, or COSA, and install an upgraded septic system by Oct. 1. It’s something Dunrovin has been trying to do for three years, SuzAnne Miller said, but the process was blocked by the ranch’s inability to satisfy state requirements for subdivisions for lease or rent.
The Oct. 1 deadline allows the new septic to be installed in the fall, after the nesting osprey are gone. They are expected to arrive any day now, Miller said.
District Court Judge Ed McLean ordered the two sides in January to try to settle their dispute, which has centered around the need for subdivision for lease or rent. At a scheduled status hearing Wednesday afternoon, Deputy County Attorney James McCubbin and Colleen Dowdall, the Millers’ representative, briefed McLean on the signed agreement.
Dowdall said there are a couple of contingencies written into the 12-page document. One is pending a pair of bills currently making their ways through the Montana Legislature –House Bill 499 and Senate Bill 324. Each passed overwhelmingly in its originating body. The Millers, who have been actively involved in subdivision for lease or rent reform, feel that if either one becomes law their ranch will be exempted.
“If (either) is adopted, and if we cannot agree whether it applies to exempt the ranch, we will be asking you for interpretation of that,” Dowdall told McLean.
The other item, she said, was newly identified during the settlement conference. It centers around whether Dunrovin qualifies as a guest ranch. It will continue to operate as such for a year, and the Millers will keep tabs on the number of clients.
“If they do … qualify for a guest ranch in the county’s view, they would have to get permit for public accommodations, which would require some specific improvements such as a commercial kitchen,” Dowdall said.
Guest ranches and outfitters who feed most of their customers off site aren’t required to have commercial kitchens, SuzAnne Miller said. It’s twisted logic, she said, that if Dunrovin doesn’t have enough guests to qualify as a guest ranch, it would have to install such a kitchen.
“If we can’t agree on that, that’s another thing we may come to you and ask for your opinion,” Dowdall told the judge.
Friday’s settlement hearing took place in separate conference rooms of the county attorney’s office in the courthouse annex. It didn’t adjourn until roughly 10:30 p.m. Wilson, as mediator, got a thumbs-up from both sides.
“He did a fabulous job,” Dowdall said.
“Under the difficult circumstances, I’m as satisfied as I could be,” said Landquist. “I think there are still some things that need to be discussed, but I guess we’ll see what happens once the Millers go through the processes of finishing the documentation that they need to submit to go through the COSA and the subdivision for lease or rent. We won’t know about the SLR probably until the legislature’s done.”