by Jimmy Tobias
Sterling Miller points to an osprey nest near his home on the Bitterroot River. “See the webcam?” he asks, indicating a small black orb above the thatched nest. “We installed it. We got 800,000 unique visitors on our website this year.”
As Sterling heads back toward the house, his wife SuzAnne emerges from the home office where she both curates the osprey website and operates Dunrovin Ranch. The couple started the small guest ranch in 2006, providing horseback rides, food and lodging to tourists and locals alike. They thought it would be a peaceful way to spend their golden years after retiring from careers in science. They were wrong.
“All of this—the osprey website, our small business—is at risk,” she says. “It has been a nightmare.”
During the last year and a half, the Millers say they have spent more than $40,000 and countless hours defending themselves against a Missoula County Attorney’s Office that has brought a lawsuit against their small business. In the process, they’ve stubbornly resisted what they believe are unfair or misapplied laws. And now their long-running battle may finally be nearing an end. On Monday, Jan. 6, the county signaled for the first time its intention to withdraw from the legal dispute.
“Most people just roll over,” Sterling says.
The episode began in June 2012 when Missoula County brought a complaint against the Millers for a host of alleged violations, including an illegal spa (their guests occasionally used an on-site hot tub), a septic tank that did not meet regulations and a garage that the couple started building without proper permits. County lawyers, led by Deputy County Attorney D. James McCubbin, threatened fines of up to $1,000 a day and put a lien on the Dunrovin property so the Millers could not refinance or sell their home.
“The first notice I had that the county was going after us legally was when I was awakened at 5:45 in the morning and a deputy sheriff handed me a summons,” says SuzAnne. “It was very discouraging.”
The Millers say they were willing to remedy all violations from the beginning, but the county would not let them replace their septic system until they underwent an expensive subdivision review. Until last year, any home in Missoula County that had an outbuilding with independent living space technically constituted a “subdivision for lease or rent” and was subject to county review.
“We were forced by a court-ordered mediation in March to continue with subdivision review,” says Sterling. “Right when I got to the end of it, after compiling hundreds of pages, the county attorney’s office said our subdivision application would not be approved because the road we live on has an inadequate easement.”
At that point, it looked like the Millers would have to shut down their business.
But before the mediation last March, the Millers went to the state legislature to convince lawmakers to change the state’s subdivision laws in order to avoid what SuzAnne calls a “catch 22” of regulations. When the changes went into effect last fall, the Millers were finally able to forgo subdivision review and complete their new septic system. After a settlement agreement between the county and Dunrovin, they thought the ordeal was over. It wasn’t.
In November, Missoula County filed a new motion to enforce part of the settlement agreement with the Millers. The county claims that Dunrovin does not meet the legal definition of “guest ranch” under Montana law. The Millers say the continued litigation feels like a “vendetta,” payback for bucking local authority.
If the case is personal for the Millers, it’s all part of the job for McCubbin. He says the county is upholding public health, safety and sanitation laws.
“Will it impact me personally? It won’t impact me one way or the other,” says McCubbin, when asked how the possible closure of Dunrovin will affect him. “I don’t get, like, bonus points for shutting down businesses, that is certainly not our goal … If the judge rules that they are exempt from licensing, great, we can all move on with our lives. But that is not what the law says, at least how we read it. ”
The parties are scheduled to go to court Jan. 29 to determine whether Dunrovin Ranch is a guest ranch. Under Montana law, a business must “accommodate” between 9 and 24 people daily, on average, to qualify as a guest ranch. County attorneys say Dunrovin Ranch accommodates too few visitors to be a guest ranch, and they refuse to include Dunrovin day visitors in the tally. The Millers’ supporters wrote in a December letter to county officials that the county’s argument fails the “straight-face test” and questioned the use of taxpayer resources to litigate the issue. If the county prevails, the Millers will be forced to comply with a slew of expensive regulations, or close down.
A new memo, however, may make the scheduled court appearance moot. On Jan. 6, after consulting with the state, Missoula City-County Health Officer Ellen Leahy announced a change in the county’s position.
“The Miller settlement achieves significant gains for public health …,” wrote Leahy. “The remaining issue of guest ranch definition is a problem created by the Legislature which cannot be resolved by the parties to this litigation.”
Leahy recommends that the county attorney’s office withdraw the motion against Dunrovin. The hope, she says, is that the state legislature will fix Montana’s guest ranch law, which was amended in 2011 and lost a critical provision that exempted the smallest operations from licensing requirements and other regulations.
If county attorneys accept Leahy’s recommendation, Sterling Miller says he will feel “vindicated,” but not without damage. “I am still out tens of thousands of dollars,” he says. “I guess I am just getting whacked with a smaller stick.”