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Flathead County Revisits Water Bottling Plant Zoning

Site of the Montana Artesian Water Company bottling plant near Creston, MT.
Nicky Ouellet
Montana Public Radio
Site of the the proposed Montana Artesian Water Company bottling plant near Creston, MT.

A controversial water bottling plant proposed for outside Kalispell has preliminary approval from the state and county to fill and sell millions of water bottles a year. But opponents are still looking for ways to shut it down.

Flathead County Commissioners spent two hours on Thursday morning re-listening to public hearings recorded two years ago.

A judge ordered them to do this in March, when he ruled that they abused their discretion when they denied a proposed zoning change. Local opponents of the plant had asked the commissioners to expand agricultural zoning to include the property where Montana Artesian Water wants to set up its bottling plant. Doing so would prevent the plant from operating, or severely limit its size.

That’s what the hearing two years ago was about. Then, also in 2016, commissioners unanimously denied the zoning change.

They called it an attempt to reverse spot-zone, which they considered a taking. And commissioners said those asking for the change hadn’t been transparent or fair. They also noted that two state agencies were already deciding the fate of the bottling plant.

Now, because a judge ordered them to, Flathead County Commissioners are revisiting the proposal. Commissioner Pam Holmquist says it’s not yet decided when they’ll take it up for another vote.

“We're here to listen to the audio today. We will not have discussion at this time. After the audio is presented we will reconvene at another meeting for discussion,” Holmquist says.

As they listened, about 40 people filtered in and out of their meeting room. Many of them had arrived early to comment again on the zoning change, which they say will protect the area’s prime farmlands from industrial development.

Helen Pilling of Kila sang her comments to the tune of “Happy Together.”

“... We all need clean water ...” Piling sang.

Outside the county courthouse, people waving hand-written signs and blue crepe-paper streamers rallied morning commuters in support of a ballot initiative that, if passed, would enact the same proposed zoning change by a referendum vote.

Steve Moore heads that effort for Water For Flathead’s Future. 

"And what we have to do is communicate the relationship of the zoning initiative terminology to vote for the Egan Slough initiative to protect our waters and keep the water bottling plant from becoming operational out there,” Moore says.

Initiative 17-01 is on Flathead County’s June 5 primary election ballot. A yes vote would expand ag zoning in the Egan Slough area to include the site of the bottling plant, which opponents say will block or limit its activity.

Opponents are also appealing a water right permit granted this January by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. They say the Department failed to follow proper procedures when it granted Montana Artesian Water’s water right. They’ve asked a Helena district judge to put the permit on hold until their appeal is decided. A decision on the stay is expected June 4. A final ruling on the appeal is expected in October.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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