Martinell v. Bd. of County Comm’rs of Carbon County

Martinell v. Bd. of County Comm’rs of Carbon County, 2016 MT 136 (June 7, 2016) (Rice, J.; Cotter, J., dissenting) (4-1, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred by holding that the Carbon County commissioners acted arbitrarily in waiving compliance with county resolution zoning requirements; (2) whether the protest provision in the Part 1 zoning statute, § 76-2-101(5), MCA, is unconstitutional; and (3) whether the Carbon County commissioners’ reliance on the Part 1 protest provision render their decision unlawful. 

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) the Court declines to reach this issue; and (3) the Court declines to reach this issue.


Facts: Appellants are a group of private landowners (“Landowners”) in Carbon County who initiated a petition to establish a Part 1 zoning district pursuant to § 76-2-101, MCA. Appellees are the board of county commissioners of Carbon County and a group of private landowners who opposed the proposed zoning district (“Neighbors”). Landowners submitted a Part 1 zoning petition to the commission in November 2014. The commission held a public meeting in December 2014, and took public comment. At the meeting, Neighbor Steven Thuesen told the commission that he and other landowners holding more than 50% of the acreage in the proposed district intended to protest if the district were established. At the end of the meeting, the commission voted to adopt a resolution of intent to grant the petition based on a finding that the district would serve the public interest and convenience. They determined to reconvene on January 15, 2015 to address protests and take further action.

At the beginning of the January 2015 meeting, the commissioners noted that none of the parties had complied with Resolution 2009-16, which established the approved process for certifying Part 1 zoning petitions in Carbon County.  The commission then stated that none of the parties had been prejudiced by the oversight, and both parties benefited from the easier standards applied. The commission found that it would be unduly burdensome to require compliance with the process required by the resolution.

Later in the meeting, the commission reported that landowners holding 60.7% of the total acreage in the proposed district had protested. The commission rescinded its resolution of intent and voted to deny creation of the zoning district based on the formal protests.

Landowners filed an action against the commission, alleging three causes of action: (1) reliance on an unconstitutional provision; (2) arbitrary and capricious reversal of the commission’s own finding of public interest; and (3) unconstitutional deprivation of the Landowners’ right to a clean and healthful environment. The Commission and Neighbors each moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court granted the Neighbors’ motion to dismiss and dismissed the complaint without prejudice. The district court concluded the commission’s waiver of compliance with Resolution 2209-16 was arbitrary. It declined to address the constitutional issues raised in light of the legal insufficiency of the petition and the commission’s unwarranted waiver of the requirements of Resolution 2009-16, and stated landowners had the option of filing another petition with the commission in compliance with the resolution. Landowners appeal, and the Supreme Court affirms. 

Reasoning: (1) Resolution 2009-16 provides the specific procedural and substantive requirements for a valid zoning petition. Neither the county nor Landowners complied with those requirements. “The powers of a self-government unit, unless otherwise specifically provided, are vested in the local government legislative body and may be exercised only by ordinance or resolution.” § 7-1-104, MCA. Resolution 2009-16 provides the standards for “Part 1” zoning petitions in Carbon County, and to waive some requirements for one petition may insert uncertainty into the process for future petitioners, future protesters, and the public, and raise due process concerns. The Court affirms the dismissal of the complaint without prejudice, and the district court’s determination to not reach constitutional issues until they are properly before it.

Justice Cotter’s Dissent: While it is true that county officials must comply with governing statutes in making zoning decisions, no parallel authority requires local officials to comply with their own ordinances. Neighbors suffered no prejudice, as shown by the fact they were able to collect protests from landowners holding 60.7% of the total affected acreage. More egregiously is the district court and majority’s refusal to resolve the constitutional issues raised by Landowners. The constitutionality of the protest provision was fully briefed in the district court and in this Court. The issue is properly presented and ripe for decision. It is a waste of the parties’ and the courts’ resources not to resolve this issue now.