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Contact: Jim Rokosch
Court awards legal fees in Legacy Ranch lawsuit to Bitterrooters for Planning for the group’s efforts to “guard the guardians”
A District Court has awarded legal fees to Bitterrooters for Planning following a land development lawsuit the non-profit organization brought against the board of Ravalli County Commissionersin 2013.
The award of legal fees comes in the wake of BfP’s successful Legacy Ranch development lawsuit. The court voided the commissioners’ approval of the 659-unit residential and commercial development planned near the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge in Stevensville last year. BfP subsequently petitioned the court for legal fees in that case.
The court noted that BfP’s “unrelenting efforts to participate in the public process to try to convince the Commissioners that the Legacy Ranch 30-year phasing build out proposal constituted illegal public policy was thoroughly meritorious.”
BfP argued that forcing a non-profit organization to incur substantial litigation costs when the government fails to enforce public benefit laws creates a substantial injustice, and the court agreed. The court also agreed with BfP that “the Commissioners should pay for their own failure to prepare an adequate EA” and for “approving a near four decade build out in direct violation of Montana law.”
Referring to the state constitutional guarantee of a clean and healthful environment, the court ruled that BfP sued the county commissioners “to vindicate public participation rights and public policy interests applicable to all Montana’s citizens. No other entity, public or private, showed a willingness to hold the Commissioners accountable under the law. The burden of this enforcement action fell squarely and solely on the shoulders of BfP.”
The lawsuit sends a strong message to all Montana county governments to take a hard look at the public health and environmental impacts of land developments, said BfP Executive Director Jim Rokosch. “Citizen voices matter”, he said, “and in this case, the commissioners dogged adherence to their misguided view of private property rights continues to rack up costs to taxpayers.”
“This is a wake up call, not only for governments, but for citizens as well,” he added. “Every right we have comes with a responsibility, and that responsibility requires citizens to maintain a clean and healthful environment and to participate in the decision-making processes of our governments.”
Quoting from the court order, Rokosch said it is incumbent upon private citizens to exercise their citizenship by engaging in public policy decisions in order to “guard the guardians”. He added, “Citizens empower government officials to guard the public’s interests and the public trust. When those officials abuse that trust, they need to be taken to task. As Thomas Jefferson told us many years ago, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance””.
BfP members volunteered many years and thousands of hours, and invested significant funds to bring evidence to the county commissioners about the illegality of Legacy Ranch as proposed before filing the lawsuit.
BfP, a non-profit member organization established in 1995, works for common sense land use laws, and keeping government officials accountable to those laws.
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