A Flathead County ballot initiative meant to block a controversial water-bottling plant has survived a legal challenge.
Almost exactly a year ago, Flathead County voters overwhelmingly approved Ballot Initiative 17-01. It expanded the Egan Slough Zoning District, whose regulations favor agriculture, to cover the site of Montana Artesian Water Co. That firm’s plans to bottle water from the underlying aquifer have drawn staunch opposition from Flathead County environmentalists.
When the ballot initiative passed in June 2018, its backers cast it as a decisive victory against the bottling plant. But it instead spawned a yearlong legal battle.
In September, the initiative’s backers — Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water, the Egan Slough Community and resident Amy Waller — sued Montana Artesian and Flathead County’s government, seeking to compel Flathead County to enforce the zoning district’s regulations against the bottling plant.
As their case sat in Flathead County District Court, Flathead County’s Planning and Zoning Department concluded that the bottling plant did not conform to the zoning district’s regulations, but should nonetheless be grandfathered in. Montana Artesian, meanwhile, filed a motion for partial summary judgment, alleging that, for various reasons, the ballot initiative was illegal.
Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison denied their motion last week, finding that the ballot initiative was legally and constitutionally above-board.
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Previously, the bottling plant opponents had petitioned the county commissioners to expand the district; the commissioners refused, drawing much criticism. Now, Allison wrote, “if the people want land use planning in the face of elected officials congenitally opposed to it … they may have it through the initiative.”
"The District Court's decision that Initiative 17-01 is legal is great news and cause for celebration in Flathead County," Waller wrote in an email. "We were confident Initiative 17-01 was legal because state law required the county attorney to approve the petition and ballot initiative before we could start collecting signatures."
Montana Artesian spokesperson Darryl James wrote in an email that he had no substantive comments on this latest development, and that "we obviously disagree with the Court's ruling, but this is just one step in the process."
James said the company plans to raise additional issues in the next phase of this dispute. Both sides are still waiting for the court to determine whether or not the bottling plant was grandfathered in to the expanded zoning district. Staff with the Flathead County Clerk of Court’s office said a pretrial conference has been scheduled for October.
Waller voiced confidence that the bottling plant's opponents will prevail on that issue, writing, "we look forward to our next day in court."
In a separate case, Water for Flathead’s Future and others have sued Montana Artesian and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, challenging the company’s water-use permit. Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley voided the water-use permit in March. That decision has been appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.