A controversial water bottling plant in Flathead County can continue operating. The county’s Planning and Zoning Department said Thursday that it’s been grandfathered into a newly expanded agricultural zone.
Opponents of Montana Artesian Water Company’s plans to commercially bottle and sell water near Creston had hoped the expanded agricultural zone, approved by voters last June, would block the company from operating.
But in a report released Thursday, the County Planning and Zoning Department concluded that Montana Artesian had shown enough intent by the time of the zoning change to be considered an existing use. The Department says Montana Artesian may operate its water bottling facility as a “legal, non-conforming use” in line with its existing permits.
Daryl James is a consultant for Montana Artesian. He says he’s pleased the county took a “dispassionate view” in its investigation.
"I think what the county saw was that this project has been not only contemplated by Montana Artesian Water, but they've been pursuing the appropriate permits and approvals from the county and the state for a number of years, and it would have been an unfortunate turn of events for anybody to pull the plug on them this late in the game."
James says Montana Artesian is not currently distributing its bottles locally and is looking into other areas. He adds the company has no plans to immediately scale up its operations.
The county’s report outlines an investigation it started in July into whether Montana Artesian’s business violated the newly expanded Egan Slough Zoning District. Neighbors of the company had filed a complaint shortly after county voters approved that new district, alleging the company’s industrial activity did not conform to its agricultural requirements.
Jack Tuholske represents Egan Slough Community, Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water and local resident Amy Waller. He disagrees with the county’s conclusion.
"As of the day the initiative became law, and there seems to be no dispute about that, he had not commercially produced any bottled water. He had run a few test runs and the facility itself did not even have the equipment necessary to produce commercially, so his intention to expand from zero commercial bottles to 1.2 billion a year is not grandfathered in our view."
In September, the three groups Tuholske represents filed a lawsuit asking the court to compel the county to enforce the zone. He says they’re mulling over their next steps in the zoning suit. Meanwhile, another group is waiting for a judge to rule on its appeal to the company’s state water right.