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A state District Court judge has absolved Lewis and Clark County officials of any wrongdoing in a three-year-old lawsuit over a new $8.1 million facility under construction at the county fairgrounds.

Judge Thomas Honzel, in an order issued last week, said the county had followed state law in using voter-approved levy funds to build the new grandstands and exhibition hall on the infield of the fairgrounds’ 138-year-old horse racing track.

The nonprofit Save the Track Foundation, made up of horse racing enthusiasts and historic preservationists, had challenged the county’s decision in court. The group accused county officials of bamboozling voters during the levy election and then later announcing the racetrack as the building site.

County officials have maintained the location of the new building, set to open this fall, wasn’t determined until some time after the election. Materials related to the mill-levy effort only showed conceptual drawings of the improvements — not final plans, they said.

Honzel last spring denied an injunction request, allowing construction to move forward. His decision last week tied up the remaining loose ends in the case.

“When we got the order on the injunction request and we passed that hurdle, we felt pretty confident that this was going to be the outcome,” Commission Chairman Ed Tinsley said Tuesday. “We’re just glad that the judge saw that we did comply with all aspects of the law … he just told us something we already knew.”

Rhonda Strainer, the foundation’s president, declined to comment. She said she hasn’t yet spoken with her attorney, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The foundation had claimed the county wasn’t authorized to use levy funds to build the structure on the racetrack because those plans weren’t included in pre-election materials. But the ballot language said the money would be used to build the building, improve utilities and infrastructure, repair the fairgrounds’ multipurpose building and improve vehicle entrances, Honzel noted.

The ballots did not mention the racetrack, and the county is using the money for the projects it had spelled out, the judge wrote.

The group also claimed the county had failed to leave the area as open space, which they said was a stipulation placed on the property when it transferred from the state to the county a decade ago. The stipulation the group used as evidence, Honzel wrote, referred to a different portion of the land and didn’t affect the racetrack.

The last horse race at the track occurred in 1999. Foundation members were upset with the location of the 60,000-square-foot building because it rendered the track useless. The one-mile dirt oval was one of the oldest tracks of that length in the country.

Reporter Larry Kline: 447-4075 or larry.kline@helenair.com

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