Missoula County Deputy Attorney D. James McCubbin did not have a good day in court on Jan. 29.
McCubbin is the lead attorney on Missoula County's long-running lawsuit against Sterling and SuzAnne Miller, the owners of Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo. The county first launched its case against the Millers in 2012 for failing to maintain an adequate septic tank and for failing to acquire the proper licensing for a construction project on their property. Since then, the Millers have complied with all of the county's mandates. Despite their efforts, the county attorney's office brought them to court last month to try to strip away Dunrovin's legal designation as a guest ranch in order to more stringently regulate the business as a hotel or a bed and breakfast.
In court, a skeptical Judge Ed McLean peppered McCubbin with questions about the purpose of the continued case against the Millers.
"What I'm concerned about is what exactly the county's interest in pursuing the Millers and Dunrovin Ranch is," said McLean. "To me we're beating a dead horse. We're not trying to accommodate our citizens, we're trying to enforce regulations and, by God, show people who's boss."
McLean is in the process of deciding the case.
The judge's sentiments mirror the views of the Millers' supporters, who believe the county is suffering from a terrible case of regulatory overreach. "In the face of this legal assault we must question how suing the Millers became a priority and whether or not there are better uses of the County's legal resources," wrote a group of local residents in a December letter to county leaders.
The most striking fact about McCubbin's recent motion against the Millers is that he went ahead with it at all. In early January, Missoula City-County Health Department Director Ellen Leahy sent an email to county officials in which she recommended that the case be deferred. "The remaining issue of guest ranch definition is a problem created by the Legislature which cannot be resolved by the parties to this litigation," she wrote.
Despite her request, McCubbin took the Millers to court. He claims that the county is simply enforcing public health and safety rules. The Millers, who have spent more than $40,000 on their legal defense, see it differently. They call it "a vendetta."
Residents are angry, a judge is annoyed and county regulators are getting a bad name. Perhaps it's time to close this costly case.