The Montana Supreme Court says the city of Whitefish can legally annex a group of properties along the east shore of Whitefish Lake in the Houston Drive neighborhood.
The Supreme Court in a decision issued late last month upheld a 2016 Flathead County District Court decision in favor of the city saying it can annex the properties.
The property owners, known as Houston Lakeshore Tract Property Owners Against Annexation, Inc., filed a lawsuit in district court in 2015 claiming the city could not use the portion of state law that allows the city to annex wholly surrounded properties to bring the neighborhood into city limits and that the city is prohibited from annexing more than one property at the same time.
District Judge Robert Allison sided with the city on both points and the property owners in August filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.
State Supreme Court Justice Michael E. Wheat issued the opinion of the court in favor of the city.
The court cited a 1969 Great Falls court case that determined property is wholly surrounded when all lands on the side of the area are within the city, or it is impossible to reach the area without crossing through city territory.
The Houston Lakeshore property owners claimed in the lawsuit that the tracts are not wholly surrounded because it is possible to reach the properties without crossing city streets, including traveling over state and county roads and across Whitefish Lake.
The argument that owners could use the lake for access didn’t hold water with the Supreme Court.
“We are also only concerned with how one accesses the area over land and we will not contemplate access to tracts or parcels by water,” the court wrote.
The court also found that the homeowners did have to pass through the city to access their properties.
“In order to access the Houston Lakeshore Area by road, the Property Owners must cross City territory, even when traveling within their own development,” the court said.
In addition, the court found that the area is wholly surround even though one side of the properties are bordered by Whitefish Lake. The court agreed with a 1987 Montana Attorney General opinion that says that a tract of land, bordered by city territory and a large navigable lake, is wholly surrounded when the sides bordered by land are surrounded by the municipality.
“In this case, the Houston Lakeshore Area has become landlocked by the City because, as to the three sides bordered by land, it is bound by the City,” the court ruled.
The Supreme Court said also the city may annex more than one property at a time, saying the state Legislature was clear when it enacted legislation that allows cities to annex wholly surrounded multiple tracts in a single resolution.
“Disallowing cities to annex multiple tracts or parcels in a single act would handcuff the ability of a city to grow its boundaries in an orderly fashion,” the court wrote in its decision. “It would also allow those who reap the municipal benefits to shirk their responsibility to share in the cost of the benefits they enjoy as de facto city residents.”
The original lawsuit stems from a 2014 work session when City Council placed about 50 properties along Houston Drive at the top of its priority list for possible annexation. The city has said it is considering the wholly surrounded method of annexation.
The Houston Lakeshore Tract and Stocking Addition, and five other parcels, is surrounded by city limits to the north and east, and Whitefish Lake on the west and south.
State law allows cities to annex wholly surrounded properties despite any and all protests.
The city has cited a need for annexation in a few areas adjacent to city limits as a way to protect the water quality of Whitefish Lake and also to have homeowners pay for the city services they already use.
The city attempted unsuccessfully to annex Houston Drive in 1983 and 2000.