Environmentalists and homeowners on Bozeman Pass have jumped into the legal battle over coalbed methane drilling.

The Bridger Canyon Property Owners Association has teamed up with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to hire local attorney Dick Dolan to help defend Gallatin County against lawsuits filed by the J.M. Huber Corp.

"For that area there has not been a bigger issue - ever," Dolan said.

Huber has leased the mineral rights under about 18,000 acres near Bozeman Pass. The company has permission from state regulators to drill a test well in the Jackson Creek area, just north of Interstate 90, but needed a conditional use permit from the Bridger Canyon Planning and Zoning Commission because that parcel is zoned.

The zoning commission denied the permit in January, and Huber sued soon after in federal and state courts.

Huber claims the commission violated state and federal constitutions and deprived the company and the owners of mineral rights of their property without just compensation.

"This is an issue about whether local government has the authority to make determinations of this kind," Dolan said.

Judges have the final say as to whether a third party is allowed to join a lawsuit, but such actions are fairly common. Either party involved in the case has the right to oppose such intervention.

Billings attorney Kemp Wilson, representing Huber, refused to comment on the matter.

Dolan, however, said Wilson had indicated Huber would not contest the intervention in federal court, but would oppose the move in the state case. Dolan said he didn't know why Huber would choose that route.

The federal case alleges Huber suffered an unconstitutional takings by the county, and thus deserves money to compensate.

The lawsuit in state court is an appeal of the decision to deny the drilling permit, and seeks a reversal of that ruling.

Mel Frost of GYC said her group wanted to support what it sees as an important environmental decision. GYC joins legal battles only when it sees a bigger-picture issue. In this case, the motion to intervene identifies the right to a clean environment shared by everyone in the Bozeman area.

"This area is very important as a corridor for wildlife," she said. "This is a case where our two groups' interests coincide."

County Attorney Marty Lambert said he doesn't plan to dive into any larger issues, but rather will stick to defending the county.

"If GYC wants to bring in issues of broad, political concern, I don't think here that is going to harm my efforts to defend the county," he said.

BCPOA president Dennis Guentzel said the express purpose of his group is to protect the rural character of the area.

This case cuts to the heart of that purpose, he said.

Nick Gevock is at ngevock@dailychronicle.com

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