Friday, May 13, 2016

Property owners sue county, helicopter service over zone change near airport



Property owners neighboring a controversial zone change are suing Yellowstone County. The change allowed a helicopter flying service to relocate next to the Billings airport atop the Rimrocks.

The property owners allege the county commission’s approval of the zone change for Billings Flying Service Inc. violates regulations regarding public zones and is “spot” zoning for a portion of the parcel that was changed to controlled industrial.

Further, the property owners claim the zone change approval is “special legislation” because of Commissioner John Ostlund’s “extraordinarily close relationship” with the Blain family, which owns BFS.

Ostlund and Commissioner Jim Reno voted for the zone change on March 1 after hours of public comment both in support and opposition to the proposal. Commissioner Bill Kennedy voted against the zone change.

The lawsuit, filed in state District Court on May 4, is being heard by District Judge Mary Jane Knisely.

There are 20 plaintiffs, including Dave Kinnard and Elaine Kinnard, who filed a written protest with the county after the commission’s vote. The plaintiffs own property neighboring the parcel.

Timothy Filz, a Billings attorney who represents the property owners, declined to comment. Earlier, Filz also filed a written protest of the commission’s decision on behalf of residents in Stony Ridge Development, a residential subdivision south of Highway 3 and directly across the road from the development.

The suit names the county, the commissioners, Al and Gary Blain, BFS and the owners of the parcel purchased by the Blains.

The suit seeks a complete reversal of the zone change approval or a reversal of approval that changed agricultural open zone to public and agricultural open zone to controlled industrial.

Yellowstone County’s Chief Deputy Civil Attorney Dan Schwarz said Thursday the county will respond to the lawsuit. “The county believes the actions taken by the board of county commissioners were proper under the law,” he said.

The zone change involved about 58 acres of private land west of the Billings Logan International Airport and north of Highway 3. The parcel originally was zoned as agricultural open space.

The new zoning changed 18 acres on the northern portion to public zoning for the location of BFS and a helipad, 20 acres in the middle of the parcel to controlled industrial zoning and left about 20 acres along Highway 3 frontage as agricultural open space.

BFS is an international helicopter flying and service company that has operated on the Blain family farm at 6309 Jellison Road for 52 years. The company, which has seven civilian-owned Chinook helicopters, wanted to expand and relocate closer to the airport.

The lawsuit alleged that the portion zoned public will be used “solely for the benefit of BFS” on a for-profit basis and will not be available for public or semi-public uses.

The regulations for a public zone, the suit continued, say a public zone is intended for land “exclusively for public or semi-public uses in order to preserve and provide adequate land for a variety of community facilities which serve the public health, safety and general welfare.”

The zone change involving controlled industrial also is “spot zoning,” the suit continues, because the area is small and “wholly incompatible with surrounding uses.”

Ostlund, the suit states, declined to abstain from voting “despite the existence of a long-standing and pervasive involvement with the Blains and BFS.”

Had Ostlund removed himself, the vote would have been a tie and the zone application would have failed from a lack of a majority approval, the suit said.

Before the public hearing began, Ostlund disclosed his long-time friendship with the Blains and his joint ownership with the Blains and others in an airplane. 

Schwarz advised Ostlund he had no reason to not participate as long as he disclosed his ties with the Blains and stressed to the public that his mind was open and that he would listen impartially to public comments before making a decision.

The City County Planning staff had recommended denial of the zoning request saying it did not comply with growth policy goals and did not meet zoning criteria.

The Zoning Commission voted 5-0 to recommend approval of the zoning change.

Original article can be found here: http://billingsgazette.com

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