Hebgen Lake

Hebgen Lake is seen in this August 2009 photo from the U.S. Forest Service. 


An attorney and Gallatin County commissioner say a government hearing denying a man’s request to land a seaplane in a lake near Yellowstone National Park was rude, unfair and an assault on our system of government.

Tempers flared at a Gallatin County Planning and Zoning Commission meeting last month for a permit requested by Lauren DeWitt to operate Yellowstone Seaplanes in the Hebgen Lake area. The tourism business would have involved overhead flights and landing in the lake, which brought a lot of opposition from neighbors.

During closing remarks, Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner said he understands the West Yellowstone area is very passionate, but felt the audience was rude, unprofessional and inconsiderate.

“I think the sly remarks and the heckling is not the Montana way, and I guess I didn’t appreciate that,” Skinner said.

Brian Gallik, attorney with the firm that represented DeWitt, submitted a letter to members of the commission last week that said the conduct of the public and the commissioners’ failure to control the hearing denied DeWitt’s right to a fair hearing. He said DeWitt would not be appealing the decision, but called the hearing a direct assault on the foundation of our system of government.

In the letter, Gallik said he was not present at the meeting, but spoke with Jecyn Bremer, who appeared with DeWitt, and other sources about the public’s behavior during the hearing.

Gallik referenced in the letter different instances and time stamps from the six-hour recording on the county’s website when he felt the fairness of the hearing was disrupted. He said public comment was essentially emotional, self-serving and largely irrelevant to merits of the application.

“ … The conduct of the public, coupled with the commission’s failure to control the hearing, denied Lauren his right to a fair hearing,” Gallik wrote.

In one example highlighted in the letter, Grace Taylor, a neighbor in the Hebgen lake area, said her concerns were noise, safety and devaluation of property. She said her father was a small planes pilot who flew pontoon planes and was an investigator for plane crashes.

Taylor said most of the accidents her father investigated were pilot error. She added that when she was younger her father did not allow her to get into a small plane because, she said, most of the pilots who crashed were cocky and drinking while operating the plane.

“I’m concerned for his passengers,” Taylor said. “I don’t know the integrity of this young man. I appreciate that he wants to start a business, that he doesn’t want to be a homeless person that doesn’t have a job.”

Taylor said she doesn’t know DeWitt. She asked board members if they had looked into whether he drank. At the end of her comments, and most of the public comment in opposition to the permit, the crowd clapped and cheered.

Megan Gibson, planner for the county, said the issue brought the most letters she had received during her time at the office.

Letters from concerned residents expressing their opposition flooded the county’s planning office before the meeting. Most of the letters were concerned with the noise the plane would produce, devaluing neighbors’ property and landing in a lake that is used for recreational purposes.

Members of the audience raised concerns about an hour into DeWitt’s presentation.

Kimberly Buchanan, chairwoman of the commission, asked DeWitt to slow his presentation down for the public and was met with an outburst of no’s. She asked the audience to respect DeWitt.

“He’s talking to us, and he’s talking into the mic,” Buchanan said. “If everybody could be quiet, and not laugh and make noises when he’s talking, and be respectful and turn off your cellphones.”

In Gallik’s letter, he said he respects the decision of the commission, but not the process that led to it. He said this type of behavior will happen again.

“When it does, I expect more leadership from the chairperson of the commission, the individual members of the commission, the attorneys representing the commission, the applicant’s counsel, and those who represent opponents to a land use application, to take steps to stop this conduct when it starts and not allow it to take over the public hearing process as happened here,” Gallik wrote.

Freddy Monares can be reached at 406-582-2630, or by email at fmonares@dailychronicle.com.


Freddy Monares covers politics and county government for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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