COLUMBUS — Stillwater County residents who have been working for more than two years to establish zoning rules that would regulate oil and gas activity in a small part of the county found out Tuesday that they have more waiting to do.
At a meeting called to take action on the zoning proposal, the Stillwater County Commission voted to postpone the issue until at least Aug. 9, to give the county clerk time to authenticate petition signatures.
Commissioners said the county attorney will also need time to determine whether an existing zoning district that would be overlapped by the proposed district would cause any problems.
Commissioner Mark Crago, who represents the area of the county where the zoning would be in effect, said the county learned about the overlapping zoning district only a week ago.
“This is one step in the process,” Commissioner Maureen Davey said. “We want to make sure we’re going in the right direction.”
But for the 20-plus people who showed up to support the zoning effort, the delay was a step back in what has already been a long, complicated process.
Burt Williams, one of the leaders of the effort to establish what is known as citizen-initiated zoning, said county commissioners and other county officials, asked for advice and guidance in the process, have provided little assistance, if any.
If the county had cooperated with the citizens group, Williams said, a lot of the confusion might have been avoided. He told commissioners on Tuesday that his group has known of the overlapping zoning issue since the early days of their work on the district. According to their own research and legal advice, Williams said, nothing in state law would prevent a zoning district in a rural area from overlapping with another one.
He said after the meeting that they never brought the issue up to the county because state law seemed unambiguous on the subject. If there had been more cooperation by the county, he said, that might have been one of the questions resolved long ago.
Citizen-initiated zoning was pursued in response to the announcement, made in Billings by the CEO of Energy Corporation of America in October 2013, that his company planned to drill for oil and gas along the Beartooth Front in Stillwater and Carbon counties.
Stillwater County residents had used citizen-initiated zoning once before, when the Stillwater Mine was being developed 38 years ago. The district established then was used to regulate mining activities and later led to the legally binding Good Neighbor Agreement between the mine and area residents.
In response to what looked like a major push toward oil and gas activity in the area, the citizens group first tried to determine where in Stillwater County hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would most likely be used to exploit oil and gas reserves. The boundaries of the zoning district were drawn to reflect that area. It covers about 79,000 acres, out of a little more than 1.1 million acres in the entire county.
By state law, creating a citizen-initiated zoning district requires getting signatures from more than 60 percent of the landowners in the proposed zone. Supporters ended up obtaining signatures from more than 64 percent of landowners, Williams said, and submitted the petitions to the commission in November 2015.
David Katz, another landowner working on the initiative, said state law requires the county clerk to validate the signatures. If that is done and the 60 percent threshold in reached, Katz said, the county commission must hold a hearing to determine whether the zone would be in the “public interest and convenience.”
If the district meets those requirements, Katz said, the commission is then obliged to form a planning and zoning commission to come up with regulations and administer the new zoning district.
Joan Brownwell, who ranches near Fishtail and who has been involved in gathering signatures since the process began, reminded commissioners on Tuesday that the signatures still had not been validated by July 2016.
At that point, Brownwell said, County Attorney Nancy Rohde told the citizens groups that it had to obtain notarized affidavits from people who had signed the petitions as representatives for trusts or other properties with complex ownership.
That meant going back to more than 100 of the 600 landowners who signed the petitions, but that, too, was done, and last month, all the petitions—nearly the same number as had been turned in 16 months earlier—were submitted to the county.
Katz said nothing more was heard from the county until a notice appeared recently in the Stillwater County News, announcing the meeting that was held Tuesday. The notice said the commission would decide whether to proceed with Part I or Part II zoning—Part I being the citizen-initiated zoning and Part II county-initiated.
Katz said it appeared the commission was acting contrary to state law, since the signatures hadn’t yet been validated and no public meeting was held to determine whether citizen zoning was in the public interest.
That point never came up Tuesday, however, since Crago moved immediately to postpone action on the proposal.
Rohde explained that a land-use attorney for the Montana Association of Counties advised the commission to go ahead with the meeting, on the assumption that County Clerk Heidi Stadel would have validated the signatures by Tuesday.
After the meeting was scheduled, Rohde said, county officials learned of the overlapping zoning issue. By then it had also become obvious that Stadel, who has three special elections and a school election coming up, did not have time to validate the signatures.
After commissioners voted for the postponement and called for public comments, Williams asked for a few minutes to gather with zoning supporters in the lobby outside the tiny meeting room, which had seating only for about 20 people, with another 10 standing along the back wall and out in the lobby.
When supporters came back, only Brownwell stood to comment, going over the history of the zoning process and asking commissioners whether supporters should continue gathering signatures or whether there should be a cut-off date, to simplify the process for everyone.
Rohde said a decision on a cut-off date would have to be made at a subsequent meeting, and Stadel told those in attendance that she was “fairly confident” she could get through with the validation by the deadline of Aug. 9—chosen because it would six months after the signatures were submitted.
Williams also asked for a show of hands before the meeting was adjourned. Twenty-people raised their hands in support of the zoning district. Asked if there were any opponents, no hands were raised.