Flathead County voters overwhelmingly approve zoning to limit water bottling plant’s size

Flathead County voters placed strict limits on a planned water bottling plant in Creston.

Tom Esch emerged from a Kalispell polling place Tuesday knowing what he wanted: citizens’ voices to be heard.

Citizens may initiate zoning laws by getting enough signatures to place issues on the ballot. And that’s what a group of citizens did last year, when they gathered over 12,000 signatures to place Initiative 17-01 on the June 5 ballot in Flathead County.

The initiative expands an existing agricultural zone near a proposed water bottling plant owned by Lew Weaver and his Montana Artesian Water Co.

The initiative cannot stop the bottling plant, but it does limit its expansion and use under the Egan Slough Zoning District.

Initiative 17-01 adds 530 acres into the existing 1,150 acres of the Egan Slough District, including the property owned by Montana Artesian. The county created the zoning district in 2002 to limit certain land uses.

On Tuesday, the initiative won by an overwhelming margin, with 71 percent of the vote – or 9,531 to 3,952, according to final unofficial totals released by Flathead County.

A former Flathead County attorney, Esch said: “We have the rights in Montana under Part 1 zoning to create citizen-initiated zoning. But the commissioners like zoning from the top down, not the bottom up. This is all citizen driven.”

Neighboring landowners petitioned the Flathead County commissioners to include the bottling plant in the existing agriculture zoning district, but the board denied that request.

During the permitting process, neighbors and county residents turned out in force to oppose the project. The Egan Slough Community, a property owners’ group, sued the county commissioners over their decision not to annex Montana Artesian’s land into the existing agricultural zone.

“This initiative is clearly for the greater good,” Esch said. “The expansion of the zone is a good idea, whether or not there’s a bottling plant there.”

The water bottling factory is about six miles upstream from Flathead Lake in an agricultural area along Egan Slough, a body of water near the Flathead River on the southern outskirts of Kalispell.

The plant touts itself on its website as being “just downstream from Glacier National Park.”

In March, Flathead County District Judge Robert Allison ruled that the commissioners — Pam Holmquist, Gary Krueger and Phil Mitchell — did not consider best available science, the county growth policy or public comment when making their decision.

Kalispell resident Scott Plotkin and his wife, Patty, moved to Kalispell three years ago from California. He’s a political junkie and sees Montana as an interesting place, where the governor is a Democrat and the Legislature is Republican.

Plotkin spent 35 years in the California Legislature as a lobbyist for the state’s university system, and on the state Senate Education Committee.

He said he sees the bottling plant issue as a balance of property rights versus the environment. “I have found Montanans to be particularly focused on these kinds of issues after their experience with mining and the resulting environmental effects decades later,” he said. “The initiative seemed like a sensible approach to the issue.”

Bob Lopp Sr. of Kalispell voted at Flathead County Fairgrounds Tuesday and shared his support of the initiative. After voting, he said the water factory is not in the right place.

“It has an effect on everybody around it,” he said.

FLATHEAD COUNTY SHERIFF

In the election to replace retiring Sheriff Chuck Curry, Jordan White, Calvin Beringer, Keith Stahlberg and Brian Heino all wanted a shot at the top law enforcement job in the county.

Heino pulled out a decisive victory Tuesday, with 49 percent (4,681 votes). Beringer tallied 1,570, Stahlberg had 1,636, and White had 1,619 votes.

FLATHEAD COUNTY COMMISSIONER

Randy Brodehl eked out a narrow victory in the Flathead County commissioner race.

In early results Tuesday night, with 42 of the county’s 42 precincts reporting preliminary, unofficial results, Brodehl held 31 percent of the vote (2,890), just in front of Gerald Scott, who had 29 percent (2,645).

Incumbent Gary Krueger, who was seeking a second six-year term, was at 21 percent of the vote (1,902). Ronalee Skees had 1,766 votes, or 19 percent, in unofficial results.

Scott lost to Krueger by 23 votes in the June 2012 primary election. The commission oversees Flathead County government and a roughly $77 million budget.