Legal action seeks to clarify local authority for NorthWestern’s gas plant near Laurel

By 
Jaci Webb
Thursday, November 3, 2022
Work has begun on NorthWestern Energy’s gas plant near Laurel. Photo by Stacey Osborne, Outlook staff

Work has begun on NorthWestern Energy’s gas plant near Laurel. Photo by Stacey Osborne, Outlook staff

Updated: 11/07/2022 —————

Laurel City Civil attorney Michele Braukmann issued this statement after The Laurel Outlook went to press last week:

"The City of Laurel does confirm that we have been served with a lawsuit from various parties objecting to the construction of the Northwestern Energy plant, located in Yellowstone County, Montana.  The property at issue in this construction is not located within City of Laurel City Limits.  Contrary to the Petitioner’s allegations in their Complaint for Declaratory Relief, the City of Laurel does not have jurisdictional authority to enforce any sort of zoning regulations for this parcel of property.  There are various and complex legal issues involved here, based upon Montana law and local authority, but the primary reason that the City does not have jurisdictional zoning authority in this area is because that authority has not been ceded to the City of Laurel by Yellowstone County, pursuant to an Interlocal Agreement.  I previously issued, on behalf of the City, a Legal Opinion on this matter, and it is attached.  That Legal Opinion sets forth, in part, the legal issues involved in this matter, as well as the City’s assessment, from a statutory standpoint, of where proper zoning authority lies, if at all – which is within the County. 

 At the present time, the Respondents (which include the City of Laurel, Yellowstone County, and Northwestern Energy) have not filed a Response to the Petition, and that is not due until 21 days after service upon the parties.  The City will be filing a timely Response, and once filed, if you would like a copy, we are happy to provide that to you.  Further than that, at the present time, we do not intend to comment on the pending litigation, unless and until we believe a formal Press Release is necessary to clear up any outstanding litigation issues.  We respect the judicial process, as a municipality within the State of Montana, and we believe that the appropriate forum for addressing these issues is in the course of the pending litigation."

 

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A group of Laurel citizens and environmental groups have asked a district court to clarify the municipal zoning authority for NorthWestern Energy’s proposed gas-fired power plant near Laurel.

The lawsuit filed last month by Earthjustice on behalf of Northern Plains Resource Council, the Thiel Road Coalition and Montana Environmental Information Center, asks the court to clarify who has zoning jurisdiction over the parcel, either the City of Laurel of Yellowstone County. Mary Cochenour, senior attorney at the Northern Rockies Office of Earth Justice, told The Outlook that the three parties named in the complaint, including the City of Laurel, Yellowstone County and NorthWestern Energy, will have 21 days to respond after they are formally served with the complaint.

The three parties argue in the complaint that the City of Laurel’s zoning regulations extend to NorthWestern’s parcels. A statement issued by Earthjustice quoted the Thiel Road Coalition as saying, “We will not be trampled on by big business and we will hold those accountable who plan to come in and destroy our communities, our land value, our quality of life, and our environment for future generations.”

In February, a group of Laurel residents joined others in a protest held at the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn against the gasfired plant. NorthWestern Energy has said that the 175-megawatt gas-fired plant is necessary to address energy needs. Meanwhile, construction of the $275 million project has begun.

Cochenour said once the court helps establish who has jurisdiction over the area, the citizens and environmental groups will be able to hold that party accountable for zoning. The Laurel city civil attorney Michele Braukmann did not respond to an inquiry from The Outlook. NorthWestern Energy’s spokesman JoDee Black said North-Western Energy does not respond to pending litigation. She added to that, “The Yellowstone County Generating Station is a low-emission plant that provides needed capacity, the ability to generate energy on demand, for our Montana customers. It’s centered on 33 acres of land southeast of NorthWestern Energy’s substation and east of the city of Laure’s wastewater treatment plant and the CHS Refinery.”

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