Bill Peterson of Nye had no plans to speak at a public hearing in Stillwater County Tuesday morning. When he changed his mind, he pointed out what seemed obvious to everyone present.
“I thought it was interesting that there were no proponents,” he said.
The public hearing was scheduled to gather comment on the county’s proposed guidelines for creating citizen-initiated zoning districts in Stillwater County. The guidelines were recently drafted in response to an effort by landowners in the southern end of the county to create a zone that would protect their area from unregulated mineral and gas development.
To meet the first statute requirement, the landowners gathered the signatures of more than 60 percent of the property owners within the proposed 80,000-acre zone. The new guidelines, however, would also require the signatures of more than 60 percent of the mineral-rights holders for zones in which subsurface rights might be at risk.
Lana Sangmeister of Nye has invested thousands of hours over the past four years collecting signatures for the petition. Frustrated at the additional, 11th-hour requirement, she expressed disappointment with the commissioners and the process.
“We’ve sought to partner with you and pleaded with you for direction,” she said, noting that a core group of landowners first approached the commissioners in September 2015. “Why would it be so awful to work with your constituents? When, why and how did we become the enemy?”
Of the 16 who spoke in opposition to the proposed guidelines, most voiced two key objections. They opposed the new requirement for signatures from owners of mineral rights and they chastised the commissioners for working against their constituents rather than with them.
Mike Lorash, a resident and land manager in the proposed zoning district, said it took $3,000 to unearth the names of the 72 owners of mineral rights for the 357 acres he manages. Citing the cost as prohibitive for most rural residents, he considers the requirement as “taking some of our citizens’ rights away.”
According to David Katz, whose family has owned a place in Beehive for more than four decades, the mineral rights signature requirement is not only impossible to implement and prohibitively expensive, but grossly undemocratic. For example, he said, a long-time rancher who owns all of his mineral rights on his 1,500-acre place in Fishtail would get only one signature counted, while someone who recently purchased a cabin on half an acre along the Stillwater River — a small plot with 32 mineral rights holders — would represent 33 property owners for the purpose of counting signatures.
Nye resident Bill Hand sees the guidelines as an attempt to subvert a long-established process that has been used to create more than 100 citizen-initiated zones across Montana. In none of those instances were the signatures of mineral rights holders required, he said.
“It’s an attempt to re-write state law,” he said. “This greatly favors outside interests. In essence, you’re over-favoring subsurface owners over ranching families.”
When Doxey Hatch of Nye got up to speak, he touched on common goals. The self-proclaimed “pro-businessman” said he could understand if the commissioners had crafted the guidelines so as not to make the county appear anti-business. But he cautioned them about the state’s long history of damage left behind by unscrupulous mineral developers. Then he spoke of the natural beauty of Stillwater County, a treasure he felt everyone valued and one that the petitioners seek to preserve.
“I think we all agree on this. That’s really the intent,” he said. “I think we can settle on the right numbers. We can negotiate. That’s really, I think, what we all want.”
The public hearing was held a week after the petitioners filed a lawsuit against the commissioners and the county clerk and recorder regarding matters related to the citizen-petitioned zone process and guidelines. In light of the lawsuit, County Attorney Nancy Rhode and Commissioners Dennis Shupak and Mark Crago declined to comment — Commissioner Maureen Davey was not present — and could not say when a decision would be made on the proposed guidelines.
Comments on the document will be accepted by the commissioners through the end of the business day on Tuesday, March 13.