A recent order in the lawsuit that City Councilman Jerry Ballas filed against his neighbors and the city of Missoula over an infill project resolved some of the pertinent questions and left others to be decided at an upcoming trial, though a subsequent appeal has put off any clarification a trial might offer.
Ballas sued next-door neighbors Jake and Jennifer Terzo along with Missoula’s Board of Adjustment and Office of Planning and Grants after the Terzos began constructing a new home on South Avenue in 2003. The Terzos had rearranged the boundaries on their two-lot, one-house parcel with the city’s approval to allow for the second house in accordance with then-existing city rules that provided for increased density, or infill.
Ballas, who voted for the city policies he’s now contesting as a then-newly elected councilman (he says city staff misled him about the infill policy’s impact), sued those involved and argued that the new lots were too small to meet zoning requirements, and thus weren’t eligible for construction. He also argued that the city wrongly approved a yard setback for the new house.
District Judge James Haynes’ Oct. 30 order delivered five rulings that addressed a number of motions and set a pretrial hearing for late November. The Terzos appealed one part of Haynes’ ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, which must address that question before the case can progress. Though Haynes’ ruling is highly complicated—particularly because the Terzos have filed cross-claims against the city and counter-claims against Ballas—the main gist is that: 1) the city wrongly issued a building permit, but whether that means the Terzos must remove their now-completed house will be decided at trial; 2) the city correctly approved the new home’s yard setback; the Terzos’ claims that Ballas misled them leading up to his appeal are hollow.
Ballas says Haynes’ ruling “provides complete vindication” of his claims; Jake Terzo was unavailable for comment. Meanwhile, City Attorney Jim Nugent says factual disputes still must be resolved at trial, and he anticipates much legal hand-wringing before it’s all over.