Owners of a popular Lolo guest ranch were in District Court at the Missoula County Courthouse on Wednesday, battling efforts by Missoula County to shut down their business until they comply with health and subdivision regulations.
Judge Ed McLean heard 90 minutes of testimony from attorneys and Sterling and SuzAnne Miller of Dunrovin Ranch before continuing the case until Friday at 8:30 a.m.
McLean scolded both sides during the hearing, saying at one point he would not let the complex case get sidetracked by attorney wars.
“When I see things tied up because of bureaucracies, then I go nuts and start saying, ‘Well, we’ll go without it,’ ”McLean said. “And bureaucrats aren’t just on the county side. Bureaucrats can be on both sides, including if attorneys start playing word games.”
The Millers have been active and outspoken advocates for reform of the state’s subdivision law for lease and rent since they ran up against it in 2010. They say they’re trying to do everything they can to make Dunrovin compliant, but that the county and deputy civil attorney James McCubbin in particular have used “draconian” measures in applying it to their business.
The county alleges numerous violations of state and county subdivision and sanitation regulations since SuzAnne Miller started the equestrian-oriented guest ranch in 2006. The Millers remodeled and expanded a former garage building to establish two apartments and started constructing a separate building before they were told they couldn’t without going through expensive subdivision review.
Foremost among Missoula County’s complaints is the absence of an updated certificate of subdivision approval, or COSA, from the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The Millers have applied for a COSA rewrite, but the application is sitting at the Missoula City-County Health Department.
“Its status is it’s on hold because the property is not in compliance with Subdivision for Lease or Rent, and that is the problem,” McCubbin said. “We can’t process anything because we haven’t received an application” for subdivision.
Such an application is in the works. Dunrovin’s attorney, former deputy county attorney Colleen Dowdall, said the Millers met a month ago with the Office of Planning and Grants to find out what they needed to do to file a subdivision application. They’ve since submitted an extensive pre-application that was well-received by OPG’s Tim Worley, Dowdall added, and another meeting is set for Friday to set the process in motion.
In the meantime, she said, McCubbin filed a request for a preliminary injunction to shut down Dunrovin “because of the allegations of violations.”
“My point is the Millers are doing everything within their power to comply and not being allowed to comply,” Dowdall said. “You have to have a COSA approved, but you can’t get it approved until subdivision for lease or rent is approved and you can’t get that approved until you’ve done who knows what. We don’t know because we haven’t been told what will happen.”
The Millers, whose enterprises at Dunrovin include a osprey nest webcam that has drawn attention from around the globe, said it would be easy to reach a resolution that satisfies everyone and keeps them in business without dragging a judge into the melee.
They say they’re willing and county commissioners have the authority to allow them to upgrade their septic system, rewrite the COSA and complete construction without shutting them down. They’d like to do it before the summer season begins in April, and they would agree to complete the subdivision review process within three months of the close of the 2013 Montana Legislature, where half a dozen bills are expected to be introduced to “fix” the subdivision for lease or rent statute.
“Let me tell you where I’m at with legislation,” McLean said. “I’m not going to sit here and hold off waiting for a legislature to enact or not to enact. We’re going forward with the laws that we have on the books.”