TOWNSEND — Landowners and an environmental organization opposed to a proposed subdivision near Canyon Ferry Lake are now going to court, challenging the decision to let it move forward.
On Friday, the group Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and seven individuals filed a lawsuit in district court, against Broadwater County and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. They are seeking to void the county’s conditional approval of the preliminary plat for the Horse Creek Hills subdivision.
The proposed subdivision would be located near the east shore of the lake, on several hundred acres west of Lower Confederate Road. The parcel would be divided into 39 residential lots and two commercial lots, which would be developed in four phases.
The prospect of this new development drew concerns from Chuck and Carole Plymale, who own a ranch south of the property. They’re two of the plaintiffs who joined the suit.
“My main concern is the water,” Chuck Plymale said. “I don’t think there’s going to be enough water to maintain the wells that are around here already if you punch a bunch more in.”
Broadwater County received the preliminary plat application for Horse Creek Hills in 2020. The county planning board and county commission began holding hearings on the proposal in the fall of 2021.
During the process, nearby landowners who opposed the subdivision raised a number of objections. They included questions about how drilling new wells for each lot in a relatively dry area would affect people who hold existing water rights, what impacts the development would have on wildlife and hunting in the area and whether significant new traffic on narrow gravel roads could affect public safety.
On July 11, the county commission gave its conditional approval to the preliminary plat application. They released written findings on July 28.
In their report, the commission said they didn’t believe the subdivision would interfere with irrigation systems or agricultural water users. They added several conditions intended to address some of the concerns from the public, including requiring a hydrogeological survey to show proof of adequate water before development can move forward and having the developer pay for improvements to Lower Confederate Road.
However, Carole Plymale said she didn’t feel leaders had fully heard the issues they raised.
“We just have public comment time,” she said. “They listened, but we don’t have any back-and-forth so that we can understand or make them understand what’s going on.”
The lawsuit claims Broadwater County failed to gather adequate information about the potential impacts, including the possibility that more groundwater use could affect Confederate Creek. It claims DNRC misinterpreted a state law that allows “exempt water wells” – wells that withdraw no more than 10 acre-feet of water per year – without going through the process of applying for a groundwater permit.
“Horse Creek Hills is an example of local government making bad development decisions that undermine senior water rights, private property rights and fail to address the community’s needs,” said Quincey Johnson, outreach director for Upper Missouri Waterkeeper.
Chuck Plymale said joining the lawsuit was the only step they had left to take.
“That’s our last alternative to be able to stop this, is to file a lawsuit and get the county and the state to do their job,” he said.
Broadwater County commissioners and Montana DNRC declined to comment on any active litigation.