HAMILTON – A Bitterroot Valley nonprofit organization is hailing a court decision Friday to nullify what would have been Ravalli County’s largest residential subdivision as a wake-up call for anyone interested in how development occurs in the state of Montana.
“This decision shows that voices of citizens do matter,” said Bitterrooters for Planning president Jim Rokosch. “The information they bring forward needs to be considered and weighed properly.”
In a 46-page decision, Ravalli County District Judge James Haynes reversed the county commission’s decision to approve the controversial Legacy Ranch subdivision and denied the developer’s preliminary plat application.
The subdivision, proposed by Donald and Alexandra Morton of Sunnyside Orchards LLC, would have created 639 residential units on 368 acres adjacent to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge over a 30-year period, starting in 2019. When complete, the subdivision was expected to house about 1,700 residents.
The Ravalli County commissioners conditionally approved the subdivision in July 2013 following 27 hours of deliberation.
In September, Bitterrooters for Planning sued the commission and developers. The suit claimed the commission did not adequately address the concerns of the public about placing such a large development in a rural area.
The commissioners received about 185 public comments on the proposal. While some were favorable, most expressed concerns about issues ranging from increased traffic and additional demands on local services to environmental impacts to the wildlife refuge and the Bitterroot River.
The subdivision was first submitted in 2006.
In that same year, voters enacted interim zoning regulations that limited housing density to one residence per two acres following growing concerns about rapid development occurring in the Bitterroot Valley.
The Mortons joined with a coalition of developers to successfully sue the county over the interim zoning regulations. Under terms of an agreement, the developers were allowed to have their proposal subsequently reviewed without the interim zoning.
What followed, according to the court brief, were numerous deficiency letters sent to the developers followed by inadequate responses. As late as October 2012, the county cited Legacy’s environmental documents for numerous deficiencies.
Two months later, Judge Haynes said, the county planning department deemed the Legacy Ranch sufficient for public review and plat approval.
Following 12 public meetings split between the planning board and commission, the commission voted unanimously to approve the subdivision with 130 conditions.
Haynes ruled the commission violated the Montana Subdivision and Platting Act by failing to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts on wildlife and wildlife habitat, as well as impacts on public health and safety the subdivision would have created.
The ruling said the commission did not adequately address issues of increased traffic from more than 9,000 additional vehicle trips on the Eastside Highway. Haynes also found the proposal failed to consider the issue of wildlife corridors.
He also concluded the proposal to phase in the project over a 30-plus-year period was illegal.
And the judge said the county denied the public the right to participate in review of water quality and traffic information related to the proposed subdivision.
On Monday, 13 members of Bitterrooters for Planning met on the Ravalli County Courthouse’s front lawn to announce the judgment.
“This is a significant accomplishment,” said Stewart Brandborg, a founding member of the nonprofit advocacy group. “It’s a time for celebration in the Bitterroot. It marks a new chapter.”
Rokosch, a former county commissioner, said Haynes’ ruling shows that the public’s right to participate in government is real and that local government officials have a responsibility to seriously weigh the information presented by citizens and agencies.
Taxpayers’ dollars are wasted when county government disregards the law, and the consequences impact everyone, including the developer who can spend a good deal of time and money and then end up with nothing, Rokosch said.
Rokosch said this decision adds to case law already in place from decisions in Missoula, Gallatin and Granite counties, on local governments’ need to carefully analyze all relevant information before moving forward with a decision to approve a subdivision.
“There is no constitutional right to subdivide property,” he said. “It is a privilege. Local government has the legal responsibility to say no when it is the wrong decision.”
Commission Chair Jeff Burrows said he wasn’t upset over Haynes’ decision, although he does believe the judge got a few of the facts wrong.
“For me, it is what it is,” Burrows said. “It’s part of the process. We tried to make a good process in forming our decision and, ultimately, the judge made his decision. I’m not disappointed.”
Burrows said there’s been no discussion on a potential appeal.
The decision will require the commission to change the way it does business in allowing developers to phase in subdivisions, he said.
“Ravalli County has consistently used phasing beyond that three-year period in the past,” Burrows said.
Burrows pointed to a development called One Horse Estates that he said was approved in 2007 when Bitterrooters for Planning members Rokosch and Carlotta Grandstaff were on the county commission. Phase one of that subdivision doesn’t start until 2016, he said.
“That is an issue that I can’t quite wrap my head around,” he said. “When I started to look, I found that we’ve applied this standard before. I think the judge thought this was the first time, but we were just trying to be consistent.”
Burrows said he believes the commission did take a hard look at the issues of traffic and wildlife corridors and how to mitigate for those.
“We never received any information that the old traffic study that we used had incorrect data,” he said.
Burrows said much of the public comment the commission received focused on people not wanting to see new homes springing up alongside the highway.
“When someone says that we don’t want to see a whole bunch of houses alongside the road, that’s not something we can mitigate,” he said. “There were a whole bunch of things that people said that I tend to agree with. I don’t necessarily want to see land used for agriculture developed, but we have to have something we can stand on to identify an impact that we can’t mitigate. It can’t just be I don’t want it here in my backyard.”
The Mortons’ attorney, Bill VanCanagan, did not return phone calls Monday.