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stop drilling

Bridger Canyon residents will propose a change to their zoning regulations that bans oil and gas drilling from most of the district in an effort to thwart J.M. Huber Corp.'s plans to explore for coalbed methane near Bozeman Pass.

"We had kicked it around as a board and finally decided to move forward as an avenue to prevent coalbed methane drilling in the district," said Dennis Guentzel, chairman of the Bridger Canyon Property Owners Association Board.

The Bridger Canyon Zoning District regulations now allow oil and gas drilling as a conditional use. The board will request that be eliminated in areas zoned exclusively for agriculture, which encompasses most of the district in which people live.

Huber withdrew an application for a test drilling permit within district last month. Company officials have been mum about their plans since, but others have speculated the firm still plans to drill.

Areas of the district zoned for recreation and forestry would still be open to gas drilling. And many of the 18,000 acres Huber has leased in the Bozeman Pass area are outside the zoning district.

Billings attorney Kemp Wilson, representing Huber Corp., said as a Montanan, he is disappointed with the proposal.

"It's kind of a not-in-my-backyard approach," he said. "The Bridger Canyon people seem to be mightily concerned with something that doesn't affect them that much."

Wilson added that it is ironic people are willing to grant exceptions to zoning when it suits their needs.

"They seem to be quite liberal in their exceptions for homes, which are popping up like thumbs, in an area that's supposed to be agricultural," he said.

But Guentzel counters that, while the area is agricultural, homes are not an exception and fit in well. The district sets the minimum parcel size at 40 acres, which is in line with agriculture zoning.

If county elected officials approve the regulation change, Huber might challenge the decision in court. Wilson said the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled in similar cases that to completely bar someone from extracting minerals is illegal.

"To prohibit someone from developing their property rights at all amounts to a government taking of property rights," he said. "And they are entitled to be compensated."

Attorney Stephen Pohl, who lives in the Bridger Canyon Zoning District and helps represent the BCPOA, said he hasn't thoroughly researched the takings issue. But the Montana Supreme Court did rule that zoning regulations could be changed after an application is filed in a Red Lodge case, he said.

And Huber's withdrawal of its permit application last month means the company would be denied nothing, Guentzel said.

"We're not precluding anything that's already been applied for," he said.

County planner Jennifer Madgic said she wasn't surprised by the regulation change request. She suggested the change to the BCPOA Board after consulting with County Attorney Marty Lambert on the matter.

Huber official Scott Zimmerman did not return a phone call Tuesday.

Guentzel said the board plans to apply for the regulation change by Nov. 1. It will come before the County Zoning and Planning Commission in December.

Nick Gevock is at ngevock@dailychronicle.com

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