About 100 people went to a hearing in Kalispell Tuesday in a lawsuit aimed at preventing a water bottling plant from producing and distributing its product.
Two Flathead County citizen groups are suing county commissioners for not enforcing a newly expanded zoning district voters approved through a ballot initiative this June.
This lawsuit is the latest in a string of legal challenges seeking to block Montana Artesian Water Company in Creston from using the full extent of its 710 acre-feet-per-year water right.
Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water, the Egan Slough Community and area-resident Amy Waller say the bottling plant’s commercial and industrial operation violates the new zoning regulations.
“We're hoping that finally, the county, after doing nothing this whole time in terms of enforcing the zone, we’re hoping it will precipitate - it will potentially mandate that they enforce the Egan Slough zoning regulations, which we believe means that the bottling plant will not be able to operate,” Waller says.
Alan McCormick represents Flathead County in this case. He says the county is in the middle of an investigation to determine whether Montana Artesian should be considered a pre-existing non-conforming use and be grandfathered into the zone, and that investigation should finish before the judge reaches a decision.
“And it would violate the water bottling plant's due process rights if the county would simply, immediately take action based on what the plaintiffs have asked them to do without conducting that investigation,” McCormick says.
The county’s planning director did not have an estimate as to when the investigation would wrap up.
Much of the testimony at the hearing centered around timing. The citizens groups noted that prior to the new zone’s creation, Montana Artesian hadn’t sold any water bottles, the company didn’t have all of the machinery necessary to hit its stated capacity and it didn’t have any full-time employees.
The county’s representation and a lawyer for Montana Artesian argued that the company’s warehouse was already built, between 1,000 and 5,000 bottles had already been produced as a test run and that necessary permits were already in hand or had been applied for prior to the new zone’s creation.
Montana Artesian Water Company is stocking its water bottles at a local convenience store and working with a local distributor to broaden its business.
The company has protested the new zone with Flathead County and says it is therefore exempt from the zone’s provisions.
District Judge Robert Allison did not make a decision and isn’t expected to until after both sides file another round of briefs on October 19.
A separate but related lawsuit against the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation petitioning Montana Artesian’s water rights permit has a scheduling conference October 1.