County ZBOA delays decision on permit for distillery proposal in Madison Food Park
The Cascade County Zoning Board of Adjustment voted Feb. 13 to delay their decision on a special use permit for the proposed Silver Falls Distillery, within the proposed Madison Food Park complex.
The board again struggled to follow public meeting process and during a break discussed how they wanted to proceed with their meeting until a member of the public shouted at them that they needed to have their discussion publicly.
The board members initially attempted to extend public comment by two weeks but limiting it to offering suggestions on mitigating the concerns raised in public comments already submitted.
After nearly an hour of figuring out the motion and how the board wanted to proceed, they ended up simply directing staff to fill out a spreadsheet addressing whether a concern was relevant to the project, under the jurisdiction of the board to consider and what mitigation options might be available to the board.
They then voted unanimously to table their decision to the next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.
According to the special use permit that was submitted to county planning in December, Madison Food Park intends to develop a facility that will be leased to and operated by Silver Falls Distillery for the distillation, bottling/packaging, and storage of liquors/spirits.
During the meeting, representatives of the applicant said the owners of Silver Falls Distillery would likely be different than those of Madison Food Park.
Initially, the facility would operate as a bottling plant and eventually grow into distilling on site.
Asked about the delay in distilling, Edward Friesen, the principal of Madison Food Park, said his company is currently distilling spirits in Canada and Mexico that are ready for bottling and that it would take about three years to begin distilling on site since they will have to locally grow the specific grains they want to use in their spirits.
If the county ZBOA were to approve the special use permit with conditions, the county planning office would issue a letter of conditional approval but would not issue the actual permit until all of the conditions were met.
County staff had recommended 15 conditions for the permit in their report to the board, which is available in full on the county website.
Scott Reasoner, speaking as board chair of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said that the chamber isn’t taking a stance on the proposed Madison Food Park complex or its components, but has a growing concern with the number of conditions being placed on the projects.
The proposed conditions for the projects have ranged from “overly burdensome to loosely connected to the review,” Reasoner said.
The overarching conditions, he said, “creates a climate that discourages future investment in our community.”
Brett Doney, head of the Great Falls Development Authority, said his organization generally agreed with the staff’s findings of fact on the project but with a few exceptions.
He said the county’s record of special use permit approvals didn’t support the requirements on the distillery project, which could have a positive impact on local tourism.
“All applications must be treated fairly and the same standards must apply. It’s not a popularity contest,” Doney said.
He said there’s a “tremendous threat” to the agricultural economy in the region and value added ag projects like the distillery are one of the solutions to those threats.
Local resident Johnny Davis said he supported the project since it added jobs to the community.
Charlotte Mehmke’s property borders the land acquired by the Madison Food Park and said she didn’t want workers living on the distillery property. No housing for workers is included in the proposal or the applications.
Kate McMahon, a consultant working on behalf of Montanans for Responsible Land Use, said they aren’t opposed to the distillery but want to make sure it’s developed with appropriate conditions to mitigate any negative impacts.
She said a condition of approval should include design standards for the one-mile private road that would be used to access the distillery from U.S. Highway 89.
McMahon also requested that the applicant be required to submit an amended site plan showing a second emergency access.
Carolyn Craven, a local resident who regularly speaks in opposition to the Madison Food Park project during public meetings, said she wanted the specific information the applicant had used to calculate it’s anticipated water usage.
Joe Murphy of Big Sky Civil and Environmental is part of the team hired by Madison Food Park for engineering work and said that the team had contacted multiple distilleries to get information on water usage to develop their anticipated usage.
“I still believe we have a lot of unanswered questions,” Craven said. “This is my home and your home and I hope we can continue to protect our environmental quality.”
In December, the Montanans for Responsible Land Use, filed a lawsuit against Cascade County challenging the public participation process of the ZBOA and County Commission decisions regarding the Big Sky Cheese project that was approved last fall.
Within the city, neighborhood councils have drafted resolutions asking the City Commission to pursue a comprehensive study of the potential impacts to the city of the proposed Madison Food Park.
In January, City Commissioner Mary Moe presented a proposed resolution regarding that study.
She said she’d been watching the process for the those neighborhood councils “with some concern,” because there’s not much the city can do.
“I knew that the city can’t afford to do such a study,” she said during the Jan. 28 Council of Councils meeting.
Since the city has no role in the decision making process, there was no guarantee that the city’s study would be given any more consideration than anything else in the county’s review process since the project is outside the city limits and in the county’s jurisdiction.
She suggested a resolution asking the state to study the proposal under the Montana Environmental Protection Act.