Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Flathead Cnty., DA 15-0696

Docket NºDA 15-0696
Citation2016 MT 256, 381 P.3d 555, 385 Mont. 156
Case DateOctober 11, 2016
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana

385 Mont. 156
381 P.3d 555
2016 MT 256

Citizens for a Better Flathead, a Montana nonprofit public benefit corporation, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
Board of County Commissioners of Flathead County, a political subdivision of the State of Montana and the governing body of County of Flathead, acting by and through Dale W. Lauman, Pamela J. Holmquist, and Calvin L. Scott, Defendant and Appellee.

DA 15-0696

Supreme Court of Montana.

Submitted on Briefs: June 29, 2016
Decided: October 11, 2016


For Appellant: John F. Lacey, McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan & Lacey, PC, Kalispell, Montana.

For Appellee: Alan F. McCormick, Garlington, Lohn & Robinson, PLLP, Missoula, Montana, Tara R. Fugina, Flathead County Attorney's Office, Kalispell, Montana.

Justice Beth Baker delivered the Opinion of the Court.

385 Mont. 157

¶ 1 Citizens for a Better Flathead (Citizens) appeals the District Court's rejection of its challenge to Flathead County's 2012 Revised Growth Policy. Citizens asserts that both the Flathead County Planning Board (Planning Board or Board) and the County Commission (Commission) violated public rights protected by Montana's constitution and statutes when they developed the revised policy without adequate public participation. Citizens also claims that the County failed to follow its own procedures for amending the growth policy. We agree with the District Court that the alleged irregularities do not invalidate the revised growth policy. Because the growth policy lacks the force of law, we likewise affirm the District Court's refusal to strike from it what Citizens calls the “property rights trump card.”

¶ 2 We address Citizens' claims in the following issues:

385 Mont. 158
1. Whether the District Court abused its discretion in striking Citizens' expert report.

2. Whether the District Court erred in determining that the Commission complied with the growth policy's mandatory procedures for adopting revisions.

3. Whether the District Court erred in determining that the Commission allowed meaningful public participation in the revision process.

4. Whether the District Court erred in determining that the Commission adequately incorporated public comments into its decision-making process.

5. Whether the final clause in Part 6 of the revised growth policy survives constitutional scrutiny.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

¶ 3 The Commission adopted the original Flathead County Growth Policy in March 2007. The growth policy's terms required the Planning Board to review the policy at least every five years and to make recommendations to the Commission as to what changes to the original policy, if any, it should adopt. In anticipation of the five-year deadline, the Planning Board prepared a proposed “work plan” for the growth policy update process and forwarded it to the Commission for consideration. On January 3, 2011, the Commission

381 P.3d 559

adopted a resolution requesting that the Planning Board update the growth policy as proposed by the work plan.

¶ 4 Shortly after the Commission's resolution, the Planning Board announced through a press release that it was commencing a revision process. Over the next year, the Planning Board held approximately twenty public workshops to solicit public comment and to discuss revisions to the growth policy.

¶ 5 The Planning Board presented a “first final draft” of the revised growth policy at a public hearing on February 15, 2012. Members of the public offered comments on the draft. Over the next few months, the Planning Board held four additional public workshops and continued to refine the draft policy.

¶ 6 The Planning Board released a “second final draft” in April 2012, and solicited comments on this draft at another public hearing in June. The Planning Board discussed these public comments at its next meeting. The Board voted to forward the policy to the Commission for approval.

¶ 7 The Commission passed a resolution of intent to adopt the Planning Board's proposed revised growth policy and initiated a thirty-

385 Mont. 159

day public comment period. After the comment period ended, the Commission held a meeting on October 12, 2012. At that meeting, it approved the revised growth policy. The October meeting, along with all of the Planning Board's public workshops and hearings, was recorded onto DVD. The Commission did not issue written findings of fact explaining its rationale for approving the policy.

¶ 8 Citizens brought suit, claiming that the Commission's adoption of the revised growth policy violated Montana statutes, the Montana Constitution, and Flathead County's own procedures. In support of its claims, Citizens submitted an expert report of Kathleen McMahon. The District Court granted the Commission's motion to strike McMahon's report. Citizens and the Commission filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the question whether the revised growth policy's adoption complied with the law. The District Court granted the Commission's motion, reasoning that the growth policy revision process did not violate any statutory, constitutional, or regulatory provisions. Citizens appeals.

STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶ 9 It is within a district court's discretion to determine whether evidence is relevant and admissible. State v. Hocevar , 2000 MT 157, ¶ 54, 300 Mont. 167, 7 P.3d 329. District courts are vested with great latitude in ruling on the admissibility of expert testimony. Hocevar , ¶ 54. Absent a showing of an abuse of discretion, we will not overturn a district court's determinations on evidentiary matters. Hocevar , ¶ 54.

¶ 10 We review de novo a district court's ruling on summary judgment, applying the criteria of M. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). Pilgeram v. GreenPoint Mortg. Funding, Inc. , 2013 MT 354, ¶ 9, 373 Mont. 1, 313 P.3d 839. We review a district court's conclusions of law to determine whether they are correct and its findings of fact to determine whether they are clearly erroneous. Pilgeram , ¶ 9.

¶ 11 We review a governing body's decision to amend or revise its growth policy—a legislative act—for an abuse of discretion. North 93 Neighbors, Inc. v. Board of Cnty. Comm'rs of Flathead Cnty. , 2006 MT 132, ¶ 18, 332 Mont. 327, 137 P.3d 557.

¶ 12 This Court's review of constitutional questions is plenary. Williams v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs , 2013 MT 243, ¶ 23, 371 Mont. 356, 308 P.3d 88.

DISCUSSION

¶ 13 1. Whether the District Court abused its discretion in striking

385 Mont. 160

Citizens' expert report.

¶ 14 Kathleen McMahon is a professional land-use planner. At Citizens' request, she reviewed the audio and video recordings of the Planning Board's and the Commission's public meetings. She then prepared a report discussing the growth policy's revisions and the process employed in preparing and adopting those revisions. Citizens proffered her report as evidence.

381 P.3d 560

¶ 15 The District Court struck the report on a number of grounds, among which was that it contained legal conclusions. Citizens argues that the report is admissible because it served the primary purpose of assisting the trier of fact to understand the content of the numerous recorded public workshops and hearings. Citizens alternatively argues that, even if the District Court rightly identified certain portions of the report as inadmissible, the remaining portions should have been admitted.

¶ 16 The McMahon report's stated purposes include: (1) determining if the growth policy revision process “followed requirements mandated by the Montana Code Annotated (MCA) and the process for updates that is specified in the Flathead County Growth Policy”; (2) reviewing key revisions to the growth policy to determine if they are “consistent with the requirements of the MCA”; and (3) assessing whether the revision process “provided meaningful public participation in accordance with the MCA and the county's own obligations.” The report analyzes whether the Commission's and the Planning Board's activities conformed to the growth policy's guidelines for revision and complied with Montana statutory, constitutional, and case law.

¶ 17 Montana law permits testimony by experts “[i]f scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” M. R. Evid. 702. We have held, however, that “expert opinion that states a legal conclusion or applies the law to the facts is inadmissible.” Wicklund v. Sundheim , 2016 MT 62, ¶ 15, 383 Mont. 1, 367 P.3d 403 (citing Cartwright v. Scheels All Sports, Inc. , 2013 MT 158, ¶ 43, 370 Mont. 369, 310 P.3d 1080 ). “Legal conclusions offered by an expert witness invade the province of the fact-finder, whose duty it is to apply the law as given to the facts in the case.” Wicklund , ¶ 15 (citing Perdue v....

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10 practice notes
  • Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Flathead Cnty., DA 15-0582
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • 13 Diciembre 2016
    ...Cement Co. v. Jefferson Cnty. , 283 Mont. 486, 495–96, 943 P.2d 85, 91 (1997) ; Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs , 2016 MT 256, ¶¶ 25–31, 385 Mont. 156, 381 P.3d 555 (finding numerous public meetings and no inhibition of public comment, though in only one primary city,......
  • Mont. Indep. Living Project v. Department of Transportation, DA 19-0238
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • 31 Diciembre 2019
    ...as required by this section are notice and an opportunity to be heard. Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of County Comm’rs , 2016 MT 256, ¶ 39, 385 Mont. 156, 381 P.3d 555.¶39 The Legislature implemented these constitutional rights by enacting §§ 2-3-101 through -221, MCA. Citizens for ......
  • S & P Brake Supply, Inc. v. STEMCO LP, DA 16-0014
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • 13 Diciembre 2016
    ...ruling on summary judgment, applying the criteria of M. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs , 2016 MT 256, ¶ 10, 385 Mont. 156, 381 P.3d 555. We review a district court's conclusions of law to determine whether they are correct. Citizens for a Better ......
  • West v. United Servs. Auto. Ass'n, DA 16-0097
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • 9 Noviembre 2016
    ...de novo, applying the 385 Mont. 295standards set forth in M. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs , 2016 MT 256, ¶ 10, 385 Mont. 156, 381 P.3d 555 ; accord State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Freyer , 2013 MT 301, ¶ 22, 372 Mont. 191, 312 P.3d 403. Gener......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
10 cases
  • Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Flathead Cnty., DA 15-0582
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • 13 Diciembre 2016
    ...Cement Co. v. Jefferson Cnty. , 283 Mont. 486, 495–96, 943 P.2d 85, 91 (1997) ; Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs , 2016 MT 256, ¶¶ 25–31, 385 Mont. 156, 381 P.3d 555 (finding numerous public meetings and no inhibition of public comment, though in only one primary city,......
  • Mont. Indep. Living Project v. Department of Transportation, DA 19-0238
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • 31 Diciembre 2019
    ...as required by this section are notice and an opportunity to be heard. Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of County Comm’rs , 2016 MT 256, ¶ 39, 385 Mont. 156, 381 P.3d 555.¶39 The Legislature implemented these constitutional rights by enacting §§ 2-3-101 through -221, MCA. Citizens for ......
  • S & P Brake Supply, Inc. v. STEMCO LP, DA 16-0014
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • 13 Diciembre 2016
    ...ruling on summary judgment, applying the criteria of M. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs , 2016 MT 256, ¶ 10, 385 Mont. 156, 381 P.3d 555. We review a district court's conclusions of law to determine whether they are correct. Citizens for a Better ......
  • West v. United Servs. Auto. Ass'n, DA 16-0097
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • 9 Noviembre 2016
    ...de novo, applying the 385 Mont. 295standards set forth in M. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs , 2016 MT 256, ¶ 10, 385 Mont. 156, 381 P.3d 555 ; accord State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Freyer , 2013 MT 301, ¶ 22, 372 Mont. 191, 312 P.3d 403. Gener......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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