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Commissioners approve old zoning regulations surrounding Laurel power plant

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Posted at 9:45 PM, Jul 09, 2024

BILLINGS - Yellowstone County commissioners approved Tuesday a controversial set of zoning rules for the area containing NorthWestern Energy's Yellowstone County Generating Station, saying those rules have actually been in place in Laurel for years.

At the commissioners' meeting in Billings, some citizens raised concerns about that zoning. Chief among those were locating a power plant so close to the Yellowstone River, the sounds that emanate from the plan, and potential threats to clean air.

While those environmental concerns have long surrounded Laurel's new gas plant, the commissioners focused on the narrow issue of zoning at the Tuesday meeting.

"It came out exactly as I knew it would. Exactly," said Steve Krum, a Northern Plains Resource Council member who lives near the plant. "Had a conversation with one of the commissioners before (the meeting)."

"It's going to be the existing zoning that everybody thought was there," Commissioner Mark Morse, a Republican, said with confirmation from the county’s civil attorney.

Yellowstone County's three commissioners voted unanimously to enact zoning regulations they say already exist.

Those regulations show where the plant was built is designated as both agricultural and heavy industrial.

"Everything that was approved today is identical to what was approved over the last 40 years," said Commissioner John Ostlund, also a Republican.

"It just seems odd that all of a sudden the maps have shown up," Krum said.

Krum, who is also part of a group of neighbors called the Thiel Road Coalition who oppose the plant, and three other residents filed a lawsuit against the county in May.

That suit accuses county leaders of intentionally switching zoning maps and cutting the public out of the process to ensure the plant got built.

"I think this is just a big push to get authority so they can rezone the land that from agricultural to heavy industry where NorthWestern Energy built their plant,” said Krum.

Commissioners and Deputy Public Works Director Monica Plecker say there was no manipulation and the county had to examine historical maps to determine the zoning, due to lack of clear documentation.

"We've gone through and are bringing forward the zoning that was believed to have been in effect, historically," Plecker said.

That lawsuit is still scheduled for a hearing in Yellowstone County District Court and an air quality suitchallenging the plant will also be heard by the Montana Supreme Court.

The plant has been operating since March.