Lewis and Clark County Administrator Eric Bryson hand-delivered a $424,000 check to Helena attorney Ken Dyrud Wednesday as part of the final settlement over a road lawsuit involving developer Jerry Christison and his Fox Trot Estates Subdivision.
The check delivery was the second of two payments made to Christison and his attorney; an additional $300,000 check for actual damages was presented to Christison last year, for a total of $724,000 in damages and attorneys fees.
“Now the county’s obligation is fulfilled,” Bryson said. “We settled the case in good faith and we’re not disputing the bill. We’re glad to get this over.”
He said the commission knew they would owe six figures in attorney’s fees, and had set aside about $500,000 in their annual budget to cover the cost.
Christison said he’s also pleased to put the litigation behind him. He noted that they battled with the county over the road past his subdivision at length before filing the lawsuit about five years ago.
“We were trying to clarify the law and how they interpret it,” Christison said. “The biggest harm is that it has taken forever to get the deal done, but that’s in the past. We’re moving on and getting on with our lives.”
Christison’s lawsuit was one of about half a dozen filed by individuals over how the county handles what’s known as “off-site” roads — essentially, not the streets in a subdivision but county-owned roads that lead to the subdivisions.
He and Dyrud filed a lawsuit in 2006 after Christison was told he was responsible for about $2 million in upgrades of 1.8 miles on Lake Helena Drive for his 12-lot subdivision. They argued that the amount was not only arbitrary and capricious, but also unconstitutional.
District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled in July 2009 that the requirement violated state and federal constitutions because the subdivision residents represented only 12 percent of the people using the road.
“To require the developers of a 12-lot subdivision to pay in excess of $2 million to pave an already deficient county road is to shift the government’s obligation onto private parties,” Sherlock wrote in his decision.
The judge said Christison was eligible for monetary damages, and also sent the subdivision proposal back to the commission for reconsideration.
In the meantime, the county had passed new rules regarding subdivision road requirements, which said developers had to pay a proportionate share of the improvements needed for the roads leading to and from their subdivisions, depending on how much traffic the developments add to the roads.
The commission applied those to Christison’s proposal, but Sherlock ruled last year that since the county has no plans to upgrade the road at this time; no time frame to do so; and no dedicated account in which to hold Christison’s money, that it again was illegal.
“As far as the court can determine, the county could keep the subdivider’s assessment and use it, for example, to buy new playground equipment in Augusta,” Sherlock wrote in his decision.
Christison said his subdivision eventually was approved, and lots are for sale.
Bryson said the county believes that the other pending lawsuits over roads in the county are different than Christison’s case, and he’s confident they’ll prevail.