By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners recently adopted a noxious weed complaint and compliance policy that includes a five-step process designed to initiate a dialogue with any landowner about whom the agency has received and initially verified a complaint. If the five-step process does not at any point result in some response or some show of cooperation from the potentially offending landowner, the Board of County Commissioners may, according to the county’s new policy, fine the landowner for failing to respond and cooperate in the process. The Board of Commissioners also holds the option of going to District Court and getting an order forcing the landowner to treat any weed infestation, or an order allowing the county to treat the weeds, with chemical spray if necessary, and bill the landowner for the cost.
Weed District Board Chairman Randy Maxwell told the Commissioners that “this complaint policy has its place, but in most instances things are resolved with a simple phone call.” He said that there were very few instances where this policy should or would be applied. He said the new rules seem strict but it is taken directly from state law.
The new policy comes right on the heels of the legislative adoption of new laws with respect to noxious weeds in Montana. That new law, the Montana Weed Control Act, is the law coming out of House Bill 133 and HB 166 passed in the last legislature and only obtained by the Weed District in the last week. Kellyann Morris, Weed District Supervisor, told the Commissioners that it applies to every Weed District in the state.
She explained that when an initial complaint is received the complainant is given a packet containing the state law, the Noxious Weed list for both the state and the county, and documents describing the county’s noxious weed program and essential definitions. The packet also contains a complaint form in which the complainant must identify the property and the issue so that it can be investigated. The current practice, she said, after receiving a complaint, is to do a” drive-by” inspection without entering the property to see if any noxious weeds are visible from the public right of way.
If a problem is identified the next step is to contact the landowner via letter and/or phone call to arrange a visit to verify the extent and exact nature of the problem. It is at this point, according to Maxwell, that 98 percent of the complaints are resolved. If the landowner refuses to cooperate at this point, the five-step process to establish communication begins. That process may end at any step in the five-step process by the submission of a plan by the landowner to address the identified problems. Or the landowner may appeal for a hearing before the county commissioners at any point in the process. They may also appeal at any point to District Court.
“The landowner has a lot of rights in this process,” said Morris.
Once the complaint has proceeded through every step with no cooperation, the Weed District Board may then decide to turn the matter over to the county commissioners for action.
“It would be out of our hands at that point,” said Maxwell. He said after that it would be up to the county commissioners and county attorney what actions to take. Those would include assessing a fine, and/or seeking court action to force treatment of the weeds.
According to Morris, one of the things that changed with the recent law is that it now gives county commissioners the opportunity to assess a civil fine. She said that the first proposal was a $1,000 fine. That was rejected and lowered to $500. That proposal was also rejected and the amount of the fine was left up to the counties.
Morris said the new law also contains new language stating that when the county accepts or rejects a complaint that it consider the economic impact to the landowner, the economic impact to the neighboring landowners, and the practical, biological, and environmental limitations of biological treatment options.
The commissioners made a few suggestions, mainly aimed at “softening” the initial language in the first correspondence wherever possible to emphasize that it is a process based upon allegations that may or may not be true.
In the end the commissioners approved the adoption of the policy unanimously.
In other business the commissioners also adopted some new Ground Disturbance and Vegetation Guidelines. These are guidelines governing any ground disturbing activity that requires county approval or a county permit to occur. The guidelines are meant to prevent or reduce the spread of noxious weeds. It is primarily applied to groundbreaking activities such as subdivisions, gravel pits, installation of electric, gas, or communication lines. Anyone working on a project that requires county approval must give notice 15 days in advance for approval to break ground.
The commissioners discussed the fee schedule for performing inspections on subdivisions to see that the weed plans had been implemented. Since any landowner can request an inspection for noxious weeds and the county will provide that for free, it has been the custom not to charge a prospective developer for the initial inspection of the property for weeds. However, a fee schedule has been in place since April 2005.
The Weed Board recommended a flat fee of $100 involving ten acres or less. Larger subdivisions would pay the initial $100 fee plus an additional $15 per acre for every acre over 10. The total fee, however, is not to exceed $300.