Clark’s Fork Valley

By Steven L. Thuesen

Guest Columnist

In the fall of 2014 a few individuals petitioned the Carbon County Commissioners for a zoning district in the Clark’s Fork Valley. After considering the petition, the commissioners voted against creating the Silvertip zoning district on Jan. 15, 2015. Within days the commissioners were sued by seven of the petitioners. That didn’t surprise anyone, but it did come as a surprise when the petitioners, led by Bonnie Martinell and represented by the “Earthjustice” law firm headquartered in San Francisco, also sued the neighbors who opposed the zoning district. Martinell and the other plaintiffs are a faction of the twenty original petitioners, and represent only 5 percent of the property ownership. Two of the plaintiffs do not even reside within Carbon County; Bonnie and Jack Martinell, the lead plaintiffs, had their property for sale at the time they petitioned for the zone. The neighbors, most of whom have lived in the Clark’s Fork valley their entire lives, have an absolute right to oppose the ill considered spot zoning demanded by the plaintiffs.

That they should be sued for doing so is outrageous. Because there is no possible legal theory to support Martinell’s lawsuit, the neighbors have asked the Court to immediately dismiss the case. Ironically, although Martinell and Earthjustice want to impose complicated and bureaucratic rules on the neighbors, they have been unwilling to follow the rules that govern zoning petitions. Zoning petitions in Carbon County are governed by County Resolution 09-16. That resolution requires that the petition have a map of the zone prepared by a licensed surveyor, have title reports for all of the property in zone, have notarized signatures, and be submitted forty five days before the hearing.

None of those requirements were met. In addition to violating the County rules, the petition violates Montana law by attempting to impose zoning on agricultural land, which is explicitly forbidden by § 76-2-109, MCA. In short, the petition is so defective that any zoning district based on it would have been completely illegal. While the plaintiffs are likely enjoying free environmental lawyers to sue their neighbors, the defendants have had to hire an attorney and pay their own legal fees to defend their property rights, and to do the research that the plaintiffs’ lawyers should have conducted before filing their meritless lawsuit. Fortunately, several of the defendants’ neighbors in the Clark’s Fork Valley recognized this lawsuit as an assault on private property rights and have offered not only their moral support, but also their financial support in defending their neighbors.

This kind of neighbor helping neighbor is what defines the people that live and work in the Clark’s Fork Valley; contrary to the divisive tactics employed by those that would sue their neighbors. While the defendants have received significant moral and financial support from their neighbors, the legal costs continue to mount. Anyone concerned about private property rights must consider the cost of standing idle when it is you, or your property, that could be the subject of the next assault on your property rights. We need to send a strong message to those that would abrogate our fundamental freedoms and tell them that enough is enough. You cannot sue your neighbors because you don’t get what you want and not expect a fight. Join the people of the Clark’s Fork Valley and show that friends and neighbors will stand together and defend each other’s rights against those who sue you for your own good.

Steve Thuesen and his wife Monica are named defendants in the lawsuit and formally opposed the zone proposal with a written objection to the commissioners. He has been a Montana resident for most of his life and they have lived in the Clark's Fork Valley since the spring of 2008.

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