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HAMILTON - How much does Tom Robak owe for Ravalli County's lawyers?

This was one of the questions raised Tuesday in the latest turn for the trial pitting the West Fork homeowner against the county and its authority to enforce regulations on floodplain development.

But the question went unanswered after nearly three hours in the courtroom of District Judge James Haynes, as Dustin Chouinard, lead attorney for the Robak family, requested and was granted a continuance until May 4.

At that point, however, the Robaks may be on the hook for more than $100,000 in costs accrued by Ravalli County in its defense of the lawsuit originally brought by the Robaks in August 2008 over a county claim that construction of the riverside house violated floodplain regulations.

"In this particular case, we were defending the floodplain of the Bitterroot River, which the court pointed out was an important public interest," said Ravalli County Attorney George Corn, referring to a January opinion issued by Haynes. That opinion approved the county's request for Title 11 sanctions, typically levied against those deemed to be filing frivolous or improper lawsuits.

Though that opinion allowed that the Robak house was built outside the floodplain, it took the couple to task over "misrepresentations of material facts" about the use of fill on their property. And it required payment of the county's costs in investigating and litigating the case.

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The extent of the sanctions and what the Robaks must pay the county for "unnecessary expenditure of taxpayer resources" was at the heart of Tuesday's hearing.

While Chouinard questioned the amount of county staff and attorney time Corn was billing, Haynes said because the Robaks chose to sue, he thought the burden for paying legal and staff costs would lean roughly 90 percent in the county's favor.

The Robaks sued the county after it issued a December 2007 stop-work order on a 4,600-square-foot log house being built a few yards from the West Fork of the Bitterroot River near Nez Perce Creek.

The county said it suspected that Tom and Charlotte Robak violated federal, state and local floodplain regulations by building near the river and using imported and on-site fill material into a regulated floodplain.

The Robaks sued, contending that the their home site, located on a three-acre parcel of land bordering the river, isn't in the floodplain and that the county was harassing the couple because of their vocal opposition to then-proposed streamside setback regulations.

The county filed counterclaims against the couple for making unfounded allegations against both the county and the former floodplain administrator, Laura Hendrix.

Subsequent testimony corroborated the county's allegation of using fill material and Haynes ruled in January that the garage was in the floodplain.

Haynes, who pointed out that enforcement procedures for county floodplain regulations were lacking, said the Robaks took a chance by not filing a floodplain permit.

"That's their right," Haynes said.

And when the county intervened, stopping work on the $1 million-plus home that remains unfinished and unoccupied, the Robaks took a similar chance by taking the county to court.

Also on Tuesday, several claims against the county and Hendrix were dismissed, including one for punitive damages of $250,000.

Ravalli Republic reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or sjannotta@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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