A portable sawmill has popped up in the middle of an eastern Custer County subdivision and residents are not amused.
At the Feb. 21 meeting of the Custer County Commission, commissioners heard from both residents of the Big Sky Subdivision as well as counsel retained by the subdivision as they laid out their complaints with the sawmill while also asking the county to get involved in shutting the sawmill down.
Attorney Lonnie Braun presented the commission with a petition signed by residents of the subdivision concerned about the industrial use in the subdivision, which he said violates the subdivision’s covenants. The covenants state the lots cannot be used for business or industry.
Braun called the portable sawmill “a terrible nuisance” to residents of the subdivision.
The sawmill allegedly appeared on a lot in the subdivision last October and since that time has worked to turn trees ravaged by the recent mountain pine beetle into salvaged lumber. Braun said the operation likely does not have permanent water or electricity, and no effort has been made to construct a residence on the lot.
Not only does the sawmill violate the covenants of the subdivision, Braun said, but it violates state nuisance laws. The rights of the landowners around the sawmill are violated by the sawmill, he said.
Braun said the residents would like to see the county investigate the issue to find if it’s a non-conforming use of the lot and subsequently issue an abatement and cease and desist letter to the sawmill owner, who was not present at the meeting.
Braun presented a screen shot of the sawmill’s website, which shows he is creating and selling the lumber. Among the items set up on the lot are a semi trailer and a railroad car, Braun said.
“There’s nothing residential about it,” he said.
Residents of the subdivision say it’s not only a violation of their quality of life, but a safety hazard because of the sawdust and possible fire hazard it creates. Braun said he is unsure of what, if any, provisions are at the sawmill if a fire erupts.
The residents of the subdivision say they have tried to talk to the man operating he sawmill about the issue, but to no avail.
Commissioners, along with county attorney Tracy Kelley, told Braun and the subdivision residents in the audience that, while they are sympathetic to their plight, there isn’t much the county can do. The county has little to no zoning other than residential and agricultural, and has no authority to enforce subdivision covenants.
Braun disagreed with the latter part of that statement, saying the state nuisance statutes allow the county to step in to protect county residents and preserve their property. The noise, dust, etc., all constitute a nuisance, he argued.
“It’s certainly not in the county’s best interest to set up an industrial activity (in the subdivision),” Braun said.
Braun said if the county does not protect its citizens and property values, it will lose the ability to attract residents.
“That’s the piece the county should be interested in,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Lintz said any time the issue of zoning is brought up or voted on in the county it is met with almost unanimous resistance.
“If we don’t have zoning in place, we have no right to step in and tell a landowner what to do with their land,” he said.
Commissioner Travis Bies said the covenant violation should be the residents’ “first line of defense,” saying the residents need to try to stop the sawmill that way before the county gets involved, if it does at all. Braun said the residents of the subdivision do not want to file a lawsuit and go through court proceedings, as it would be cheaper for the county to issue a cease and desist to the sawmill.
Even if the county tried to intervene, Kelley said, it would have to demonstrate the sawmill was a public nuisance, which could be challenged in court. The county would have to conduct air quality and other testing—which has not been done—to prove the sawmill is a nuisance. That could mean a large expense to the county.
Commissioner Mark Hartman said the county frequently has residents request that the county enforce covenants, which is something the county simply cannot do, as it is a civil matter. He said he felt covenants should not have been brought up at all when discussing the issue.
“If we get involved in this deal, it’s going to appear to be because of covenants,” he said.
County planning director Rex Harris echoed those remarks, saying county ordinance does not address covenants.
“We’ll tell people flat out that it’s a civil issue,” he said.
Kelley recommended that the commission not get involved in the dispute and encouraged subdivision residents to pursue the issue through its covenants by seeking an injunction on the sawmill as it works its way through the court system.
Commission chairman Phil Lampert agreed, but said if there is an avenue the county can use down the road through evidence—such as proven water contamination, etc.—it would consider doing so.
“I sympathize with the people here today. I wouldn’t want it near me, either,” he said.
In other news from the Feb. 21 meeting, the commission:
• Approved the hiring of David Clevenger as a full-time deputy with the Custer County Sheriff’s Office, effective Feb. 24. Another deputy will be hired in May, which will make the department fully staffed.
• Approved forgoing the practice of allowing the combining of lots for tax purposes without replatting the lots or doing a lot line adjustment. The practice creates a lower tax bill for the landowner, but creates problems for the county. Moving forward, the lots will be taxed as individual parcels.
• Learned from Custer County airport manager Mark Stites that there were no bids received for the proposed new fuel system for the airport. Stites said he learned the Request for Proposal (RFP) the county created for the project included a couple of components that those in the industry said they could not meet by the date stated in the RFP. Stites said he will research how to improve the RFP and report back to the commission.