Ravalli County District Judge James Haynes handed opponents of the Legacy Ranch subdivision a significant victory last Friday, ruling in their favor in a lawsuit against the Board of Ravalli County Commissioners and overturning the commission’s August 2013 approval of the 639-unit proposal. In his July 31 opinion and order, Haynes stated the commission failed to take a “hard look” at impacts to wildlife habitat and that “this failure alone is sufficient to void the [Preliminary Plat Decision].” He also found that the commission had “violated the right of public participation … when it deferred the compilation of an adequate record upon which the public could comment until after the approval of the PPD.”
Jim Rokosch of Bitterrooters for Planning, which originally filed the suit in September 2013, offered the following statement from Jack Tuholske, the citizen group’s lead legal counsel: “The court’s thorough and well-reasoned decision shows that the Ravalli County Commissioners had ample warning that Legacy Ranch had numerous legal flaws and should have been sent back to the drawing board. Montana’s subdivision laws protect the public interest and allow for responsible development. Legacy Ranch did neither.”
Bitterrooters for Planning had long taken issue
with the subdivision—initially pitched by developer Donald Morton back in 2005—based on concerns over impacts to public safety, local schools and the adjacent Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. Much of the testimony collected by the county back in 2013 came in opposition to Legacy Ranch, and when commissioners approved the developer's application, those critics quickly took the issue to the courts. The first and only public hearing
in the case took place this June.
Ravalli County Commission Chairman Jeff Burrows says the commission was “surprised” by the ruling, and is still digesting the contents. “It’s probably dead unless us and the developers or whoever comes through and appeals it up,” he says of Legacy Ranch. “I’m not exactly sure at this point.”
Burrows adds there could be broader implications stemming from Haynes’ opinion, particularly the judge’s stance on the commission’s three-year plat approval period. The commission has consistently used a three-year phasing process for subdivisions, Burrows says, and he’s surprised the approach is being challenged now. In light of Haynes’ findings, he continues, Ravalli County will have to review the subdivision regulations and “probably change how we do business as far as subdivisions go.”